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.

What I Read February 2016

I got a lot of reading done in February, but I doubt I’ll manage a similar feat in March. It was mostly fantasy, a genre I’ve always loved but have drifted away from somewhat in the last few years. Drifted away from reading, but not so much from acquiring. I’ve ended up with quite the stack of unread fantasy doorstops, so I’ve started wading through them. Actually, most of those I read this month were either recent purchases or digital books. Still, I cut down my reading list quite a bit.

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Glamour in Glass

Mary Robinette Kowall

I read the first book in this series a couple of years ago and found I liked it better in theory than in practice. I liked the concept of a fantasy novel that is set up like a classical romance. Really, I like everything about it but that romance. Something about it didn’t ring true to me; I’m having trouble recalling at this point. I liked this sequel a lot more. It continues the story, but here I can just accept the central couple.

This is set in the 18th century (maybe early 19th) and Jane and Vincent take a trip to Europe to study Glamour, their shared passion. While there they make some progress with research about how to trap the illusion of Glamour so it can be moved. However, they are stopped when Jane becomes pregnant and can’t do Glamour any more. While that strains her relationship with Vincent, it is nothing on the encroaching return of Napoleon to France. This is not a particularly long book, but its two central characters are very well drawn. And it feels to come more naturally from the characters than the first book did. It also sets up more for the series going forward than the largely stand-alone first book did. This was a very good read.

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The Glass Magician

Charlie N Holmberg

The problem I had with the first book in this series, The Paper Magician, was that it seemed to move a little too fast to its climax. It didn’t give the reader enough time to get to know its central characters before expecting an emotional connection for the big finale. Basically, my problem was that the book was too short, which isn’t the worst problem to have. I enjoyed reading it very much even if it didn’t leave me fully satisfied. The sequel mostly fixes the first book’s problem by not having to introduce all the characters. I ended up liking this one quite a bit more than the first and I’m eager to get to the third one.

In this one, Ceony and Emery have to deal with an even greater threat than last time, this time focused on Ceony instead of Emery. While the elder magicians work to keep her safe, Ceony blunders into trouble that makes things worse. You know, basically how every Harry Potter book goes. Not that this book owes much more to that series other than the concept of a magic school, it certainly does its own thing. Ceony ends up uncovering information that could change everything people understand about magic. The Glass Magician is an improvement on its predecessor, though I would still like a bit more.

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The Bands of Mourning

Brandon Sanderson

There is a lot about this book that I like. I like how it gets out of Elendel and how it expands the Mistborn world. Unfortunately, those things happen in a book with some incredibly obvious plotting and one of the most painful supposedly comedic scenes I’ve ever encountered.

The plotting is the bigger problem. Every twist in this book isn’t so much foreshadowed as they are immediately obvious. It plays out exactly how you’d expect. I expect more from Sanderson, this book is just limp. The bad comedy scene is a bad comedy scene. It was reminiscent of his attempts to write Mat in his first book of the Wheel of Time series. That was a character known for being funny and Sanderson failed completely to get that across. Most of the character work in this book is good, but it still left me pretty disappointed. That said, I am still eager to get the final part of this trilogy. This is the first book by Sanderson that I would call a miss, but it wasn’t a bad miss.

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Striding Folly

Dorothy Sayers

This short story collection contains the last of Dorothy Sayer’s Peter Wimsey stories. There are still plenty that I haven’t read, but these are chronologically the last ones. It’s just three short stories, but they are interesting ones. The first is just the usual murder mystery, starting with the set-up and a brief investigation before Wimsey wanders in and solves the mystery. The next one is more involved, with Lord Peter leaving the hospital after the birth of his first child and he happens across a bemused police officer. He has witnessed what he thought was a murder. The two of them get drunk and he explains what he saw, which is enough information for Lord Peter to get to the bottom of things. The last story is only barely a mystery, being set several years later and it deals mostly with Lord Peter and his oldest child. There is a mystery, but it is about as low stakes as possible. Still it is an entertaining read.

The most interesting thing about this collection is that two of the three stories don’t have crimes at the center of them. This is going to spoil both stories, by the way. The first is more a prank than anything else, though a convincing one that gets a hapless police officer in trouble. The second is mostly about how Lord Peter disciplines his children.

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Red Seas Under Red Skies

Scott Lynch

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, but this one does not quite live up to it. It is two different books mashed together, with the connecting tissue between them not being exactly strong. It starts well, picking up some time after the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, with Locke and Jean in a new city running a new con. As they painstakingly set up their heist, their past catches up with them and they are forced to work for the cities Archon against his enemies. It sets up a good struggle, with the protagonists trying to free themselves from his control while not messing up their other scheme. Then the Archon decides that he needs to send the two of them out to be pirates, despite them not being trained as seamen. What follows is a sequence with them acting as pirates. It’s not bad, but it does take Locke and Jean far away from their more interesting other plots. It all comes together for an ending that doesn’t serve either side particularly well.

I still enjoyed the book quite a bit. While it strays from the books strengths, the best new characters appear in that pirate portion. At times it is a lot of fun even if it feels pointless. And Locke and Jean remain an excellent pair of rogues. I received both this book and its sequel for Christmas and I will be getting to that sequel sooner rather than later.

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The Complete Peanuts Volume 3

Charles Schulz

This was part of a Christmas gift, where I got volumes 3 through 6. This is still early Peanuts, but it is just about perfect. It nails that Peanuts tone of somewhat mopey nostalgia; combining silly animal jokes with some dark existential fretting. It’s really good, but you know that. I don’t know how much else I have to add. I guess it’s worth noting that these collections from Fantagraphics are really nice. The books feel good and they come in nice slipcases. The outsides are as nice as the insides.

What I Read in September ‘14

I didn’t do enough reading in September; of course, I often say that no matter how many books I read. My goal is four books, though, and I didn’t reach that milestone this month. I just didn’t spend the time reading that I normally do. I expect to get more reading done in October, though I don’t know how much more. Probably the next Outlander book, a Christie and maybe something more.

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Busman’s Honeymoon

Dorothy Sayers

This is the final Peter Wimsey mystery and I didn’t like it much at all. It was apparently adapted from a play, and it reads like it. Much more of the story is told through dialogue with minor characters, with much less time for the protagonists. This story does include Lord Peter and Harriet’s wedding. That early section of the book is great, but it has little to do with the mystery. It goes on for a good quarter of the book and gives a nice send off for some of the smaller supporting characters. Then there is the mystery in the middle; this is the part that feels like a play adaptation. The majority of the dialogue is told through cumbersome dialogue. It also makes it harder to get into the mystery. That mystery is also meaner than the norm for this series. It ends with what feels like a final wrap up. Lord Peter is less sure of “hobby” as a detective now that he is married. Also, he was disgusted by the petty monstrousness of this case. It provides a fitting, if somewhat depressing, end to this series.

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The Fiery Cross

Diana Gabaldon

This fifth volume of the Outlander series follows Claire and Jamie as it draws close to the start of the American Revolution, as well as a community starting to form around Fraser’s Ridge in the North Carolina back country. The Fiery Cross largely continues plotlines started in the last book, like dealing with the despicable Steven Bonnet and the growth of Brianna and Roger’s relationship. It seems significantly slower paced than previous books. The first quarter or so of this 1000+ pages long book take place at a Gathering of emigrated Scots, where both Brianna and Rogers and Duncan Innes and Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta’s weddings are scheduled. Little events, eventually important little events, keep dragging this scene out further. It is simultaneously amazing that Gabaldon keeps the scene moving without really moving anything and frustrating that that is how the book starts.

The one big development in this book is the complete dismantling that Roger goes through. He was a university professor in the twentieth century, with skills that aren’t exactly useful in the frontier of the eighteenth century, but he made due. Over the course of this book, Roger is crushed even further down. His attempts to learn to shoot end when he discovers that he is physically incapable of being a good shot. While early in the book he is lauded for his musical skill, which is soon taken from him as well. There are always difficult trials that characters face, but few times in this series has a character taken the brunt of misfortune that Roger faces in this book. While this book does move ponderously at times, there is a central mystery that ties it together nicely.

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The Guns of August

Barbara Tuchman

This is an exhaustive look at the first month of the start of WWI, as well as the days the immediately led to it. It is a fascinating read, illuminating the characters of the men in charge while also clearly illustrating the sequence of events. What comes across most clearly is the arrogance of everyone involved. The French had their plan if it came to war, and they were going to stick to it no matter what the situation actually was. The Russians were completely disorganized and incompetent, with their entire government crumbling. Germany was flush with economic and military success and eager to expand their country. All of them thought any conflict would be short lived and decisive. That arrogance is most apparent with Germany’s decision to invade Belgium. If they would have avoided it, then there was a good chance that Britain would not get involved or at least not involved as fast. But they didn’t think that Belgium would fight. The idea that they might not like the idea of being conquered by Germany seems to have never occurred to them. They somehow didn’t expect the reaction they got for burning their way through a country that had been neutral. The personalities of the leaders come through, as well. None are shown to be true villains, but neither are any portrayed as heroes. One of the most fascinating was Joffre, the Commander in Chief of the French Army. He stuck to his initial plan, despite what the Germans were doing not matching what he expected. But he also helped maintain control during their retreat without breaking.

The one weakness of The Guns of August is that other that a few chapters covering a naval engagement and Russia’s disastrous campaign against Germany in the East, it is almost totally about the Western front. Weakness isn’t really the right word, I guess. That’s just not what the book is about. For example, it does give just enough of a glimpse of the goings on to make me want to know more about Russia’s war with Austria. Still, I am sure there are other books about that very subject; I just need to read one of those.

What I Read in June ‘14

Another four book month and this one includes a reread. At least I finally got the millstone that is Acacia off my back. I am so glad to not be reading that book any more. I hope to keep up the pace in July, which it looks like I will at this point.


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Acacia

David Anthony Durham

This is the book that has been slowing me down for the better part of four months. It came highly recommended by some people I know, but the more I read it the less I enjoyed it. It follows the royal family of the Acacian Empire: the Emperor and his four children. At the end of the first part, the Emperor is killed, his empire crushed and the children are scattered. It is quite similar in set up to A Song of Ice and Fire. In the second half of the book, the children have grown and they come together to save their homeland. The big twist is that the protagonist’s empire is an awful place. The government distributes drugs to the populace and pays of a distant power with a yearly quota of slaves. Of course, the people that conquer them are no better.

My big problem with this book is that is ponderously written. It features a lot of telling rather than showing. Instead of having the read find out about the drugs or slaves, it just flat tells it in narration. The reader doesn’t get to see the characters mature, they are just told that it happens. It switched between the four, as well as a few other characters so frequently that it is hard for any of them to build any narrative momentum.

SPOILERS. I also don’t buy a lot of the events in the second half of the book. The eldest daughter is captured by the bad guys and spends ten years (or however many it was) a essentially a prisoner trapped in the palace. Suddenly, she goes from hating Hamish Mien, the villain, she falls in love with him. Falling for her captor, that is an understandable development, but having her hate him for all those years before suddenly changing her mind was hard to swallow. Then there is the death of the eldest son. While leading an army, he accepts a duel to the death to determine a battle. Instead of finishing a battle he has already essentially won, he chooses to fight a man he knows he can’t beat in a duel that even he calls a bad idea as soon as it is suggested. It is just a monumentally stupid plot twist. END SPOILERS

Those moments of just flat out stupidity, on top of how far removed the book keeps the reader from the characters, really killed the book for me. I understand why this got recommended to me, but I really didn’t enjoy it at all.

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The Five Red Herrings

Dorothy Sayers

Another Wimsey mystery. Possibly my least favorite in the series. There is just no personal stake here. There is no victim to feel for or diabolical criminal to catch. There is just a guy that nobody liked getting killed and everyone is a suspect because nobody liked him. Wimsey also doesn’t get a lot to do in this book. That was also true of Gaudy Night, but there he was replaced by his love interest and an interesting character on her own. Here he is replaced by some bland policemen. The mystery itself is actually quite enjoyable, but most of the Wimsey stories I’ve read have had another layer that this one lacks.

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Diamonds are Forever

Ian Fleming

The odd thing about this fourth Bond novel is that the spy stuff doesn’t really get going until past the halfway point of the book, and even then there is very little of it. Bond is investigating a diamond smuggling operation, so he goes somewhat undercover and smuggles some diamonds into America. His payment is arranged by the mobsters he’s smuggling for in a fixed horse race. He meets up with former CIA Agent Felix Leiter, who is investigating the same people. Leiter throws arranges for the fixed jockey to throw the race. So Bond’s mobster employers arrange for him to get paid with fixed gambling. So he goes to Vegas.

I guess the point of the book is Bond’s growth as a character. He feels like he’s moved on from Vesper in Casino Royale and actually connects with her as a person. Most of the book is just Bond touring America and sharing his thoughts. Unsurprisingly, his thoughts tend to be sexist and racist. Shocking, I know. This book was pretty much the opposite of what I want from a Bond story. I would rather have action and monomaniacal villains, not normal gangsters and ruminations on the fleeting nature of life and love.

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The Eyre Affair

Japser Fforde

I first read this more than two years ago and absolutely loved it. Now that I’ve read the rest of the series, as well as the rest of Fforde’s body of work, I still love. It is a great book. One of my absolute favorites.

Thursday Next is just a great character. She is highly competent and brave, but also flawed. The big conflict between her and her love interest is that she is unwilling to admit that the tragedy she was involved with in the ongoing, at least in the books reality, Crimean War was at least partly the fault of her brother who died in that tragedy. It is her loyalty to her brother straining everything else because he was at fault. She is also the perfect kind of character to be the lead this sort of screwed up mystery. She is tolerant of nonsense while not stooping to participate in it.

I think on of things that draws me to this is that Jane Eyre is one of my favorite classic novels. It is also a weird book, being kind of Gothic and kind of a fairy tale and kind of a romance. It is the prefect book to fiddle with in this sort of meta-fictional manner. Read this.