Wednesday, May 31, 2023

53. Golden Fool by Robin Hobb (book 2 of the Tawny Man, trilogy 3 of the Elderlings Saga)

So now we conclude book 2 in the ongoing adventures of Mr. Jump to Conclusions always in the worst possible way man.  Oh my god, I seriously considered whether I would be able to finish this one in the middle.  The setting in incredible, rich and evocative.  The plotlines are multi-layered and intriguing.  The magic system is well thought out and keeps revealing more.  I want to find out what happens.  But argh the protagonist sucks!  I still can't tell if Hobb is doing this on purpose or if she doesn't get that we don't need his constant misinterpretation and extreme pessimism to drive the book forward.  Almost every thing that happens, he takes it in the worst possible way.  He is also often quite stupid (like no shit the Outislanders young queen's servant woman is obviously an avatar for the evil White Prophet).  

But not only is he always misunderstanding everything to an extreme, he is also kind of an asshole.  He is super prude about sex in a way that nobody else around him seems to be.  Two different women want to have regular sex with him with no strings attached but niceness and not only does he have to reject them, he has to do it in the most assholish way guaranteed to piss them off (and unfairly).  And then to make matters worse, he is also a homophobe!  His best friend, who may not even be a human and can switch identities and genders and peels his skin like a snake every year, is in love with him.  When he pushes the friend to admit this, he then shuns him and is all angry.  Like WTF?!  Yes, this can be awkward, but anger?  Just maddening.  He spends the entire book shunning his biological daughter because he is so convinced that if he shows himself to be alive, her adopted dad will be destroyed?  The same person who is devastated and blames himself for his death?  Make it make sense.  

And the final thing that is really bugging me is that he acts like he has to make this tough choice whether or not to support Prince Dutiful in his quest to kill the dragon.  He frames it like this terrible choice between supporting the Fool and saving the dragon so they can mate and dragons can come back which duh everybody wants and would be good for the world or killing the dragon because his prince took up a challenge from his bride which she was obviously forced by the evil white prophet to make.  Obviously, you save the dragon and try to free the Outislanders from the white prophet's coercion.

The thing is despite these frustrations, Hobb always manages to pull it back by the end.  There is some redemption and positive developments in FitzChivalry's whiney life and more importantly, the storylines are gripping and conclude in exciting and satisfying ways.  The brutal fight scene where the Piebald leader and his supporters get their just desert is intense, brutal and extremely satisfying (though still we have to have Fitz get all resentful because he got left in jail afterwards and feeling abandoned when it obviously was the right thing to do and he was better protected because of it).  The negotiations with the mixed representatives of the Old Blood is equally satisfying and almost promising, with the bonus that the young prince shows some character as well.

I am surging on to the last book in the trilogy and then can move back to the Rain Wilds where there are also some annoying characters, but a nice mix and done I hope in third person so I don't have to hear their thoughts.

Monday, May 22, 2023

52. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

I found this on my parents' bookshelf.  My mom didn't seem to know about it so I don't actually know where it came from, but I'm glad it was there.  Turns out Diary of a Nobody is a major influence on english literature in two streams: the fictional diary format and the sympathetic mockery of the growing lower-middle class in Edwardian (and later) England.

The diary is written by Mr. Pooter, a married clerk living in the suburbs outside of London who strives to be proper and uphold Victorian class ideals and esthetics.  He is hilariously prim and un-self-aware.  He is also always constantly injuring himself in minor slapstick accidents, like banging his head on the window when pulling it in quickly because he thinks a gentleman is arriving at his house and wants to ensure the maid answers the door. He narrates in detail his petty conflicts with tradespeople as well as his sycophantic love for his boss, the gentleman Mr. Perkupp.  Though he is the object of much scorn by many of his fellows and the book is poking fun at him, none of it is mean-spirited.  The writers clearly have a real sympathy for him and it makes the book funny and endearing.  He and his wife Carrie have a very good and loving marriage and that is never attacked or mocked.

As it was initially a series of entries in Punch and expanded when published as a single book, it's not a full narrative, although there are a few narrative threads that run through it.  The biggest is Lupin, their wayward son and whether or not he'll get a job.  He falls in with the bad influence of a theatre troupe. It is a light and quick read, highly enjoyable for those who have an understanding of British culture, possibly mostly impenetrable for those who don't.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

51. Fools Errand by Robin Hobb (book 1 of the Tawny Man, trilogy 3 of the Elderlings Saga)

Jumping back into the Realm of the Elderlings saga, I started the third trilogy (and the second Farseer) with Fools Errand.  I did a bit of wikipedia reading on the first Farseer trilogy to catch back up and Hobb spends a good chunk of this first book with Fitz recalling the past events, so it wasn't too difficult to get reintegrated.  Fitz is now a hermit woodsman, living with hit Witted wolf Nighteyes and his adopted son Hap in a small cabin and existing off the land.  He is of course full of constant regrets and doubts and just generally pathetic mopiness. Hobb walked a thin line in the first trilogy between making Fitz a deliberately flawed character and just making him annoying and socially obtuse to the point of ridiculousness (and plot manipulation).  We get a lot of the latter in the first third of the book, but it's tolerable as there is also a lot of good stuff, including fleshing out the world (we learn more about the complexities of the prejudices against the Witted), some nice new characters (innocent, promising Hap and magic-item providing and possible love interest Jinna the witch) and finally some actual hints of badassness from Fitz himself!

There is a lot of preamble and setting up, but ultimately Chade convinces Fitz that he needs to come back to Bucktown and continue his career and destiny.  The bigger plot of The Fool is expanded upon and we learn that he is some kind of destiny manipulator and that he has an antagonist who was maybe involved with the Redship Raiders.  The catalyst that brings Fitz back is the disappearance of the prince.  The Fool, Fitz and a hunstwoman head out to a neighbouring county whose queen had given the prince a hunting cat to which it seems the boy became witted.  This adventure is pretty straightforward for a Robin Hobb novel, basically a long chase and eventual ambush.  I enjoyed it, except for a part that again felt forced and false where they capture one of the bad guys, who was left as a rear guard and is clearly a teenager way out of his depth.  Fitz all of a sudden decides he has to torture him.  The character motivation here was his loyalty to the Farseer line but there were just so many other ways for him to find out what he needed (and he didn't really even need to find out that much).  It just seemed like fake conflict and just out of character.

Fortunately, this was short-lived and the climax is quite exciting (including a teleporting interlude to the beach of mementoes from the Liveship Traders trilogy hinting at greater connects between these two narratives).  Surprisingly, this book actually has a solid denouement where Fitz gets some reward and love for his efforts.  Despite some nitpicks, this was a great start to the next trilogy and I look forward to seeing Fitz's next challenges as the new Chade.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

50. Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill

My mother had several of the books from this series in my family's bookshelf and I was curious to read them but had too many other books to read at the time.  I found this one in a box on the street where some neighbour (whom I heard has since moved) had put some good 80s sci-fi and other miscellaneous paperbacks. I debated choosing something more auspicious for my 50th book of the year (a new speed record for me), but ended up just going with something consumable.

This is part of a series featuring national coroner and amateur detective, Dr. Siri Panboum.  It takes place in post-revolutionary Laos.  I feel like there needs to be a name for this sub-genre, the cozy regional/other culture detective series.  There is probably one for almost every part of the world, Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency being the big name.  I guess the difference here is that is also a period piece.  

The investigation is triggered here by a blind man who is killed by a runaway truck, revealing an invisible ink letter on his person.  Siri uncovers a possible royalist sponsored military coup and heads south with an old revolutionary colleague to investigate.  We get lots of interesting locations, culture and history.  The history was informative and I appreciated learning more about what happened to Laos in the revolutionary period after WWII.  There are also two side murder mysteries, a deputy governor who is electrocuted in his bathtub and a village boy who is drowned.  The last one was quite sad. 

I enjoyed the book but didn't get deeply caught up in it.  It might have been that I jumped in late in the series and did not have a strong connection to Dr. Siri.  He's a fun character, with a spiritual side.  There is a lot of drinking as well.  

A note on reading 50 books in under 5 months.  It's rather intense.  My mind feels a bit jumbled but wants to keep pressing on, like at the end of a long-distance race.  A big factor here is just consistently reading, with a few late nights.  Mainly, though, I think it's because I have cut movies and most TV out of my life these days (though still watching a lot of basketball).  I've also cut way down on Twitter, though it still sucks me into its maw from time to time.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

49. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

This was the latest book I was reading to my daughter at bedtime.  Obviously, a classic, I wanted to get it into her consciousness before she was too old. I think at first she wasn't totally into it. The narrative jumps around a bit and the first few chapters are more about Mole and Rat and their pleasant semi-rural existence.  I loved these parts, myself.  Once Toad became the centre of the narrative, she got more connected.  It was interesting because at some point she pointed out that she thought the book was going to be about Mole but then seemed really to be about Toad.  He really is a funny and infuriating yet compelling character that keeps the book driving forward with his egomaniacal narcissism.  Sort of a Bertie Wooster on steroids, the kind of lovable aristocrat that would no longer fit in today's world (and probably shouldn't have been as lauded in yesterday's), but so much fun to read about.  

The two sections of the book really are an interesting mix of descriptive, almost lyrical examinations of friendship, hospitality and the British countryside, among other themes with just straight-up action and slapstick comedy.  It got my eyes watering when Mole returns to his old, abandoned home and experiences all those feelings of nostalgia when one has closed one chapter and moved on to another.  And then at the end it's basically Badger leading Toad, Rat and Mole armed with cudgels to go full brawl on the invading stoats and weasels.  

Anyhow, a wonderful book.  Read it to your children.  My only regret is that in my haste to get a copy to read to my daughter, of all the various illustrated editions, I bought this elegant but too minimal copy that is kind of a bummer.  I'll look for an illustrated version so she can check out some images and we'll watch one of the movie versions as well.

48. A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

I consider this paperback to be a pretty nice little find.  I had read this a long time ago, it was all the rage amongst a group of friends I was hanging with in the 90s.  They were all about alternative culture, zines and all that and I remember this one being a big deal.  I see on the wikipedia page that Crews was trendy among the 90s hipsters like Sonic Youth and Madonna.  I can definitely say this book is very readable, though it's not my jam.  There is too much cruelty to animals and just gross stuff.  I am trying to supress a slight contempt, as my understanding is that Crews was the real deal. It just feels like there is a deliberate attempt to be over the top, to write something that would get urban 90s hipsters in their early thirties all excited.  As an old hardboiled head, I feel a slightly smug superiority from some of the equally hardcore, but less over the top and perhaps therefore more impactful, books of the decades before.

That being said, the setup in A Feast of Snakes is pretty wild and creative.  The snake theme is everywhere and well thought out.  The description of the town and its big snake festival is richly painted.  The characters are all interesting and the writing is compelling.  I just don't really get what it is all in aid of.  The passage where they bully Poncy, the fat old ex-salesman with a Spanish name and background, feels gratuitous and somewhat forced.  Let's make a weaker person party super hard and make him shit his pants!  Even when I get beyond how much of this is an accurate portrayal of the extremes of redneck life in small-town Georgia, I still don't really understand why we care.  If it is just a creative portrayal of a pretty wild location, then as that it succeeds and is entertaining.  I'm not sure what the narrative and internal dialogue of the protagonist, Joe Lon Mackey, tortured ex-football star, is supposed to tell us about life or anything.  The ending especially feels like a simplistic resolution to the typical depression/anxiety of the redneck living in a double-wide who beats his wife and realizes nothing will ever change.

So I have lots of criticisms, but if you can stand a little excess and grossness and cruelty and may even be down for some of that, this is a really quick and fun read.

Monday, May 08, 2023

47. The Paperback Conspiracy by various National Lampoon writers

Well from the best book of the year to the worst (also possibly on the all-time worst list as well).  This was a gift from a friend who can't help buying stuff at this cool comic store.  I didn't get what it was until I started reading it.  It's basically a collection of National Lampoon articles from I guess the magazine.  It's a bummer because my aunt's long-time boyfriend when I was an adolescent and in college who was a very cool funny guy was a writer for the National Lampoon I guess around the time this book was published (1974) though maybe quite a lot later.  He doesn't have anything in this one in any case, but if what is written here is indicative of the Lampoon that he was writing or then I have to notch down my respect.

There are a few very mildly funny pieces (or parts of pieces) but mostly this is deeply unfunny.  I recognize that humour is hard, probably the hardest kind of writing to craft.  So I like to give some leeway.  The problem here is not only is not funny, but much of it is mean-spirited with sprinkles of misogyny and centrist-establishment mocking of radical politics.  It just all feels easy and lazy and smug, the humour of the privileged.  There is one writer who had some cleverness in his turn of phrase and ideas, Henry Beard, but the rest was an absolute chore to get through and I almost gave up several times.  I have been reading it for a few months and only finished the last few stories today.  Hey, it gets me closer to 50 books.

46. The Runaways by Victor Canning

This is so far the book of the year for me, possibly going into my all-time pantheon.  I found it in a free book box inside the Little Burgundy rec centre.  I actually hesitated at first, as I am not a huge fan of Victor Canning's espionage and crime novels.  My good judgement held firm as I could not turn away a beautiful (if faded) Pan that is a combo of young adult and free animal themes.  I am sure glad I took it.  This find went from a B to an A+ that is still delivering.  What a great book!

If I were much less lazy, I would try to write a proper essay on this book and its implications.  Reading this book really crystallized why I read the types of books I do.  There is a common theme of many of the books I read, of freedom.  The private eye working on the edges of the law making his own decisions, the ex-soldier trying to find lost gold in the jungle, Parker walking the thin line between the cops and the outfit, all these narratives provide a fantasy of escape from the confines of quotidian domestic life (the "four walls of today" as the intro to the great OTR Escape puts it so well).  I also like violence and ass-kicking, but reading The Runaways made me realize that I can have a deeply satisfying and even emotional response to a basically action-free adventure.  Other than the cheetah hunting (which was pretty cool but written in a matter of fact style), there is almost no conflict in this book, let alone action.  

Smiler, as he is known, though his real name is Samuel M., is a nice but somewhat errant 15-year old boy who gets falsely arrested for stealing an old lady's pocket book and is sent to an "approved school".  He runs away and gets picked up by the police.  While they are driving him back they get caught in a powerful thunderstorm.  Stopping to help a stranded motorist, the cops leaving Smiler alone and he takes advantage to hop it into the woods.  At the same time, in a nearby open air wild animal zoo in an arisocrat's estate, a female cheetah, Yarra, escapes when a lightning strike destroys the fence that closes her in.  After their various wanderings, Smiler and Yarra end up unknowingly (at first) sharing the same barn as a hiding place.

Smiler is a resourceful and smart kid, almost wise above his years in some ways. His father is a cook on merchant marine ships and his mother died when he was young, which accounts for his independence as well as his somewhat wild ways.  Another element that I loved about this book that though he is on the run from the law and has to be very careful, so there is some tension, everybody that he encounters is that great sort of reasonable, tolerant English person who doesn't ask unnecessary questions once they ascertain that you are a good sort on the out side.  The worst person is his older sister (from whom he ran away) and her great sin is just to maintain a way too clean and uptight household.

I found this book a joy to read from beginning to end.  As well as the freedom angle, particularly enjoyable when following Yarra on her explorations and hunts, we also get some great bildungsroman as Smiler gets a job working at kennels and local colour and geography and even a small bit of detecting.  The final cherry on the top is that there is a sequel, which perhaps I should be wary of as the open ending is quite perfect.  Still, I will definitely add this to my hunting list.

Saturday, May 06, 2023

45. The Notch on the Knife by William Haggard

This is a propitious find as I had been under the impression until recently that Haggard was really a writer of the post-war period, but it turns out he wrote books about Colonel Russel right up until the early 80s.  I think mainly the reason I had that impression was because the only books of his I could ever find were those lovely old green Penguins. So I was pleased to find two of his books from the 70s in the recent Plattsburgh haul, under the Walker British Mystery imprint (which I believe is American).

Haggard's post-WWII conservative pragmatism comes out even more starkly when you know it takes place in the 70s.  Colonel Russel is retired now, has a flat and is on the board of a big mining company.  Milo, an old friend from his war days in the Balkan mountains who also happens to be the president of the country where the fought comes to visit.  It is purely social but he does let on that there has been a significant discovery of iron in those hills and that he has come to England to negotiate with Russel's company about getting the rights to mine that iron.  Upon leaving, Russel saves Milo from his own booby-trapped hallway where somebody planted a mine.  

Haggard does a lot of telling rather than showing.  This is often done by the internal thoughts of various characters.  On top of that, he never names any specific countries, except England.  Milo's country is a kind of lesser Yugoslavia, divided up into three barely held together (by Milo's charisma mostly) regions.  It is, like Ukraine today, caught between the west and the east.  The iron is a big factor in the tensions of such a nation, as Milo selling the rights to a British mining company is seen as selling out to capitalism.  This is only intensified when the big secret comes out that there is also significant gold.

I had trouble understanding the economics here, but this was before we got off the gold standard and currencies were struggling for some reason.  A single country getting a lot of gold could then use that somehow to destabilize other countries' currencies, which triggers the Americans to get involved.  Russel goes to the country, meets a hot young badass security agent when she knocks out a burglar in his hotel room and throws him off the balcony before acrobatically jumping down after him), gets involved in several adventures and assists the situation which climaxes in actually quite a crazy ending from which the title of the book comes.

There is a lot of action here, but it doesn't feel very exciting as much of it is sandwiched between long strategic soliloquies from the minds of the various players.  Haggard seems to have it in particularly for economists, diplomats and young hippies.  It's a decent book and the action saved it, but the plot felt simplistic and abstract and the politics is starting to show its age.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

44. The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold (and the preceding Novella, Mountains of Mourning) (#4 in the Vorkosigan saga)

The Becky Chambers book got me into a sci-fi mood.  Because they are so hard to find and to remember the order, I had bought in advance several of the Vorkosigan saga books at Dark Carnival just so I would have them at hand and this was the perfect moment to dive back in.  The novella, Mountains of Mourning and the book The Vor Game were both in the same physical paperback where I read The Warrior's Apprentice.  I thought I was just going to read the novella and count it as a book, but calling it a novella is really stretching it.  It's closer to a short story.  So I felt it fair and wanted to stay with Miles so I simply continued on with The Vor Game.

Mountains of Mourning has Miles get sent deep into the heart of his home country Barrayar to investigate the murder of a "mutie" baby.  Born with a hare lip, the child is found dead by her mother in the crib.  The town wants to move on as this practice, though technically now illegal, is deeply woven into the military Barrayan culture. For Miles it is a challenge of leadership and ethics.  This is a tight, enjoyable story where we get to see him use his intelligence and charm to somewhat win the locals over and figure out the case.  Very enjoyable.

The Vor Game starts out similarily, this time with Miles graduating from the academy hoping for a posting on a ship but ending up getting sent to a frozen training island to be the local weatherman.  Here he encounters his drunk predecessor, hazing colleagues and the aggressively old school possibly psychotic colonel Metzov who runs the place.  This looks to be a murder mystery and then a similar ethical challenge when the colonel goes too far, when Miles is suddenly whisked away (because of the outcome of the ethical challenge where he stood up to the colonel with the other men whom he was forcing to clean a dangerously toxic accident) and joins Imperial Security to become a spy.  We are thrust back into space politics and Miles' old Dendaarii fleet.  This was a really tone shift (and Bujold acknowledges it, saying she wished they could have been two separate novels).

The second part was fun but it reminded me where these novels can require a lot of generosity from the nerdy reader.  There are a lot of wild coincidences that drive the plot forward.  Once I accept them, then I can get into the spirit of the story (and she also said she deliberately wanted to make it somewhat of a comic space opera), but one feels a bit of "come on!" when he not only runs into his old fleet who are involved in a imbroglio that may threaten Barrayar, but also the emperor himself when he is arrested!

The characters are quite fun and Miles is so likable that I can excuse some of the forced plot machinations.  Ultimately we are here for Miles to brilliantly and narrowly drag himself out of the fires, take advantage of his galactic old boy status and screw over some great badguys (Colonel Metzov returns, another coincidence and we also get a new villain platinum blonde manipulatrice Cavilo).  The Vor Game reminded me of Georgette Hayer's books, but in space.

Monday, May 01, 2023

43. the long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

This book has been on my list for a long time and I ended up buying it new as I like to throw some money to independent bookstores when my on-deck shelf can afford it (and currently it is at less then 50% width full which is the lowest it has been in several years).  It is part of what I half-jokingly and endearingly refer to as the new wave of "Woke" Science Fiction.  Other than a recommendation from a work colleague who is way ahead of me on these new authors, I had no knowledge of what to expect.  The cover is misleading as is the pull-quote ["a quietly profound, humane tour de force" - The Guardian].  It's definitely humane; quietly profound is stretching it and tour de force is simply unearned.  It is however, a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction read, inventive and compelling and at times movingly satisfying.  

The actual one area where it really is quite groundbreaking is in its structure.  There is no overarching storyline at all, no big conflict with a final climax.  It is episodic, almost like an older TV series, except that the transitions between episodes are not as delineated.  The story starts out with Rosemary, privileged young human woman from Mars who ships out on a beat-up but lovingly crewed tunneling ship.  Their job is to dig the tunnels between layers of space that allow for travel between systems.  Perspective jumps from crew member to crew member, each of which is a quirky individual and whose pasts give us knowledge about the universe we are in.  We basically follow the ship and its crew as it moves from job to job, getting to know them and the universe better.  They are ultimately setting out to do one big job that involves connecting a tunnel to a volatile species and the final chapters are about that job, but it is the people and the setting that is the throughline here, not any narrative.  

This is overall a relatively reasonable and benign world.  It's kind of the Scandinavia of science fiction world-building.  There are conflicts and problems and politics but it seems that most people are trying to make things okay.  Humans are a lesser species, saved from extinction only by the luck of one of their pilgrimage ships escaping dying earth running into a superior race of aliens.  The fun here are the exotic locations and the cool side characters.  This book is almost like an introduction to a tabletop RPG campaign setting put into a narrative form.  There is not a lot of tension and I appreciated that.  It was an easy page-turner that had me moved on several moments, a much needed tonic from some of the bad books I had to go through recently.