Judge Dee, The Chinese Gold Murders Rothdas book review RSS
3.4 Stars

A quietly enjoyable and complex mystery novel set in pre-modern China. The protagonists are good without being overbearing, and the chapters have a nice variety as they switch between the abstract/intellectual focused Judge Dee, and his lieutenants who are more rough and tumble and handle physical challenges. It reminds me a bit of the Ars Magica RPG in that way. The novel is fairly short (150 pgs), but covers several mysteries and several dozen characters. I enjoyed the social graph it laid out and thinking about the mysteries, most of which I was completely lost on. At least that is until the book started introducing meta-fictional elements. Then I'm like "Ha! I can solve this. I know my way around a plot structure." I didn't quite solve the final problem, as the central crime of the novel isn't really one that makes sense in the modern day, but I was at least close. Overall the novel was pleasant, complex, enjoyable, humorous, and humane (well, for its time; I'm grading on a curve here).

Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe
3.4 Stars

A short and likable novel that does several neat things but ultimately does not rise to greatness. The first thing you notice about it is the cover art, which is just about perfect. The next thing is that the story is a re-interpretation and re-exploration of Lovecraft's _The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath_. It is a sort of Beowulf/Grendel situation. This time the a story is based on the outlook and experiences of one of the natives of the Dream as she ventures across her world, seeking a woman who has traveled to the waking world. I liked these parts of exploration and travel, as the author fills in tons of tiny and more quotidian details to HP's antediluvian world. More generally, I just like these types of stories and enjoy these fan-fiction type efforts to explore/expand/re-imagine earlier works from different view points.

So! That is the meat of the book, and it is good. The negatives are that Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath was never my favorite HP work; and I wish she had re-interpreted one of his stories that I am less luke-warm about. Also, the ending is perhaps not perfect, and just kind of pleasantly fades out. And finally, I thought that there was a bit too much beating of the cyclopean, undead horse of HP's sexism. A little kicking would have been fine, but the sustained drubbing it receives isn't really why I read novels.

Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph
3.2 Stars

This is Sherlock Holmes by way of Jack Vance. The novel contains ~8 short stories, each of which involves the clever Magnus being roped into solving one mystery or another on a different world. Magnus will investigate and solve the case, avenge himself on anyone who insulted his dignity, and retire with his profits. Which he then loses to start the next adventure.

It probably doesn't need to be said at this point, but Vance is always delightfully inventive and is just fine as a sci-fi author creating new cultures, species, and worlds. The numbers and science and precise world building are never really the point, it is more he lays out one interesting landscape or setup or set of cultural mores after another. And he keeps the usual Vancian attitudes of low key amorality and deception. I particularly liked the Sardines story, the murder on the space station with its multiple alien interviews, and the syzgy story (which prefigures at least some of the scenes from the Three Body Problem).

John Dies in the End, by David Wong
3.4 Stars

On the book jacket there is a review blurb comparing this to a combination of "Douglas Adams and Stephen King", and that is almost a perfect description. I would substitute Laird Barron rather than Stephen King, since the horror elements in this story are more along his lines of cosmic threat. And the author isn't quite Douglas Adams, there is less mature whimsy and more school yard puerility. Overall I liked the stories though. Wong is a talented author and I enjoy his voice. He is creative with characters and monsters and monster life cycles, and constantly mixes in humor, 4th wall elements, unreliable narrators, reversals, and just generally draws the narration in a scraggly line all over the paper. This was also a bit of a flaw; the stories were a little bit too scatter-shot, and tried to incorporate a few too many stylistic elements. It is a bit like someone putting together a workable 4 color deck in Magic: The Gathering; yes it is impressive, but maybe you could do even better if you limited yourself to 1 or 2 colors? I think I would rather see Wong go all out with either horror or humor and write a more directed tale. He has the talent for it and could be one of the princes of the Horror ghetto if he wanted it.

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
1.4 Stars

I tried this audio-book out, as I was looking for something to listen to on my walks and Metafilter had recommended the John Cleese recording. It was a disappointment. I made it ~30% of the way through before getting tired of the epicycles and quitting, before becoming bored with walking/house work and listening to another 30%, quitting, and then repeated the process one more time to finish the book off. Apparently everyone who has ever lived or voted differently than Mr Lewis has done so because they are controlled by demons. And of course all those people he disagreed with will suffer in hell for all eternity. If nothing else you have to admire the chutzpah of the man.

Edit: After further reflection, I am bumping up the score by 0.2. Half of that is for the ending, where a person is sent directly from an explosion into heaven, and I like how it parallels later Islamic writing by suicide bombers. The other 0.1 is for the point he makes about just because something bad happens, that does not make it the truth or reality of life that was hidden. E.g. a community is a nice place for 20 years, and then is riven by violence, that does not make the violence the truth of the place. If anything the longer lasting peace could be said to be the more accurate description of the place. This is a point that I think is both correct and not said enough.

A Better World
2.6 Stars

This sequel was mostly a disappointment. I had hoped for more originality; instead I received more plots taken from Season 2 of Alphas. I'm really not sure how the author will finish out the trilogy as Alphas only aired for 2 seasons. In addition to not breaking any new ground plot wise, there were failures in basic competency in the sequel. This is a spoiler for the first 20 pages, but there is a terrorist group, and their plot is to interrupt food and goods delivery to 3 major US cities. They do this by a launching an attack on a score of delivery trucks during a single night. This makes it so that insurers won't cover trucks that are delivering to the cities, so that absolutely no food or goods are delivered to these cities for 4+ weeks. But couldn't you just run trucks without insurance you ask? Shush! Couldn't the government just step in as an insurer of last resort? Quiet! Couldn't companies/wild catters just head in with supplies and charge a premium, like happens after a hurricane? Nope! Couldn't the government just pay outrageous fees to get contractors and drivers, like they do in war zones? Impossible! Ugh. The plotting has so, so many problems. And I could overlook this boneheaded plotting if it just came up once and then was accepted/forgotten, but the author keeps bringing it up again and again throughout the story, and each time it is a fresh annoyance. Oh no, this character's baby is starving, if only there was some way, some possible way, that we could get food into this city. Over and over again. There were other smaller annoyances: in this book the US President is an African-American man with a history degree from Harvard & a calm and intellectual speaking voice, which seems like Obama with the serial numbers rubbed off. And the book constantly describes him as weak and indecisive. It's like author, man, I'm sorry that it has been 8 years and Obama hasn't embroiled us in any pointless wars, that must really make you feel emasculated. But please don't bring that disappointment into your novel and insult my POTUS-waifu. And then there is the treatment of the Academies for the gifted, which admittedly were not great, but which did not seem significantly worse than your average US high school. I'm not sure that working as a staff member there should deserve a death sentence. But again, I'm too much of an Order person, sorry not sorry.

On the bright side, there are parts of the story which read just fine as sort of James Bond/Tom Clancy (JBTC) like adventure. It is a bit like an avocado that is going bad; there are black and rotted areas, but there are still some parts which are perfectly healthy and tasty. And I'm cautiously hopeful that it represents a trend, that perfectly boring and forgettable JBTC stories are being enlivened by being combined with super powers, Mythos beings, magical girls, etc etc. It won't always produce something good, but I feel like it will at least produce more interesting stories than these same authors would have produced 20 years ago.

3.4 Stars

A fast paced and competently written action novel about a version of the modern world where a small percentage of people have developed super powers. Think James Bond or Tom Clancy but with powers. The powers aren't explicitly super powers in that they all have a natural explanation and are based around the idea of superior brain functioning in one particular area (e.g. a super-human ability to read markets, or to read micro-facial expressions, or to handle strategy and tactics, or to do science, etc. etc.). Functionally though it works out to about the same thing as super powers. Overall I liked the book! My enjoyment was hip-checked at several points though because this novel overlaps with other, similar works that I was exposed to earlier. The largest instance of this was a cheesy but ultimately lovable SyFy show called _Alphas_, which was released ~2 years before this novel (I suspect both Alphas and Brilliance draws on Heroes and other shared progenitors, rather than one was explicitly copying the other). In any case, there is a huge amount of plot and setting overlap between Alphas and Brilliance, so much so that I could not tell if one was the novelization/TV adaptation of the other until about 300 pages in where the plots finally start to diverge. A second and more minor collision happens with the works of Carre. There is a fair amount of spy craft in Brilliance, but it is not necessarily that competent. E.g. If Smiley was working in the DAR, the story would have ended much more abruptly, as there are multiple Carre stories where the sorts of beginner tactics found in Brilliance are used to trap wayward agents. And in general, there are parts of the plot that don't make *that* much sense if you stop to think about them.

So! Despite all of those semi-criticisms, I certainly did read the book quickly enough. I read the last 80% of it in one night, which means that at some level I must have liked the book. Part of that was the 20 degree weather outside, which encourages huddling up around a book, but the author deserves credit too. The author isn't a beautiful writer like Vandermeer, but he does churn out consistently readable and interesting action adventure pages. I'm looking forward to what he does in the second book, and if he can take the series in more original directions now that it is diverging a bit more from Alphas and similar works.

Hell Spark
2.0 Stars

Not a terrible book, but not one that really grabbed me either. I liked the initial descriptions of the strange electric planet, and the writer is good at writing. I didn't really jive with the story though; the author gave the Mary Sue protagonist this one really niche power (encyclopedic knowledge of other cultures), and then kept finding unlikely ways for that power to be applicable. It reminded me a bit of this, or this. I quit about 100 pages in.

The Fifth Season
1.0 Stars

If the room's a rockin' it is because I am being oppressed.

A potentially neat fantasy setting based around earth benders, ruined by victim porn. So, so much victim porn. As far as I can tell it is all the book consists of. I made it maybe 25% of the way through the book before becoming terminally fed up with the protagonist.

It doesn't help that I appear to be too much of a Order/Empire person for these stories. If there are people with magical talents who can destroy a continent with a moment's anger, it does make sense that they would need to be tightly controlled. Sorry not sorry.

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes
4.2 Stars

A very interesting summary of 30 years spent with a small Amazonian tribe. Reality consistently does better than the creations of sci-fi and fantasy authors, and reading about the Piraha was fascinating. The book covers the language and culture of the Piraha, as well the author's experiences and anecdotes from his time there. In that spirit, let me just list some of the highlights of the book:

- the absolute folly of taking your family (including your young kids and 100 lb wife) out into the middle of the rain forest
- the author's self-awareness and self-depreciation
- a neat section on how the different sounds of speech are made
- several neat sections about information theory in relation to language
- the Piraha's perfect, 200 year history of having no conversions to Christianity, despite the best efforts of missionaries
- Piraha child raising, or lack thereof
- the numerous anecdotes about the Piraha, their happiness, how they live, how they talk, and how they conceive of the world. This is one of the things I love about anthropologist's efforts, how they give the lie to the idea that there is just one "natural" way of thinking or of being human. As a complete weirdo, I say the more outlier data points we have the better! =)

The Imago Sequence, by Laird Barron
3.2 Stars

God never closes a door without opening a hole.

If Robert Aickman is a bit too oblique in his strange tales, Laird Barron is perhaps not quite oblique enough in his working-class tales of Mythos-horror. Lovecraft and many of his successors turn away at the cusp of the un-nameable and indescribable, but Barron just keeps on trucking. This is a strength and a weakness in his stories. When it works, you get some genuinely disgusting/clever/memorable scenes of cascading terror. When it doesn't, the scenes come away as formulaic and repetitive and silly, and lose by the extended explication of something that should be alien and beyond us. It is even worse than the usual case where a villain explains their plot, Lovecraft readers are so finely attuned to working off of hints and suggestions rather than detailed plans. There is one point at the end of the first short story, when you think that the hints that have been given by the monster are all you are going to have to work off of. Nope! There are two more pages of explanation after that. And it is like, "Oh, ok, I guess I wasn't expecting a full diagram of what is going on, but sure, go for it."

Anyway! These are horror stories, and involve large amounts of blood, guts, mud, slime, body horror, terrible mutilation, and death. The main characters are thugs, soldiers, detectives, and good-old boy business men. On the one hand I do kind of like this different take on the Lovecraft protagonist; no limp-wristed philologists here! Instead, we have hard men with small minds medicating themselves to death. Seriously, there is a lot of drinking. Most the characters go through the stories in a haze of alcohol and pills; it is a bit like reading _Good Morning Midnight_ all over again. Zing! As an experiment, I went back to the penultimate story in the series, The Imago Sequence. Here are the number of times that a character takes a drink/drug, or talks about doing so:

Page 1: 1
Page 2: 4
Page 3: 8
Page 4: 1
Page 5: 2
Page 6: 1
Page 7: 6
Page 8: 4
Page 9: 8
Page 10: 4
Page 11: 1
Page 12: 0
Page 13: 1
Page 14: 0
Page 15: 2
Page 16: 0
Page 17: 4
Page 18: 4

This short-story is a bit drunker than average, but not by much. (Now we finally reach the other hand...) It gets annoying when your protagonist is completely soused through story after story, and just evaporates when moving from scene to scene.

One thing I did appreciate was that the stories are more interconnected than you usually get from the genre. The main connections are in Bulldozer, Hallucigenia, and Imago Sequence; they are also the best stories and I would read those first if you are wondering if you will like Laird Barron. The worst stories were Black Sloth and Proboscis, both of which left me feeling like I wasted my time. Honorable mentions go to Parallax, which is more melancholy than horror, and Hour of the Cyclops, where Barron takes the piss out of the other stories in the collection. Overall these were bloody and well written horror stories with a Lovecraftian tint; I'm just not sure I actually like such heavy and direct horror stories.

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer
4.6 Stars

Probably the best general history of WWI that I've read. It covers all the relevant topics (pre-war situation and concerns, politics, technology, strategy, tactics, art, post-war settlements, etc. etc.) and at a reasonable depth and thoroughness. Side topics are interleaved through the main history at relevant points, and overall it gives a clear and comprehensive overview of the war. I kind of want to write more in this review, but I'm not sure what else to comment on as the book is just a completely solid effort from start to finish.

Skin Game, Dresden Files book #15
4.2 Stars

An extremely fast and enjoyable urban fantasy read. My previous experience with the Dresden Files has all been via audio book, where James Marster and his dulcet tones have LARPed their way with me through the series. I've really enjoyed the audio books, and they've been an immense help and distraction while taking care of the scut work of moving into a new house. So, actually reading one of the Dresden books and not having it read to me by Marster was initially a disconcerting experience. How am I supposed to get into the action without Marster shouting "Fuego!" in my ear? Do the jokes and references still work without his delivery? Fortunately the answer is yes, and after a ~50 page adjustment period I enjoyed the book-book as much as the audio book. The experience is somewhat different; the audio only goes only as fast as the human voice, while the book reads extremely fast. I've read books that are compelling and that I end up reading in one sitting, e.g. _Annihilation_, but reading Skin Game was different, it was closer to playing Diablo III for 6 hours straight. The story moves extremely quickly, and I basically read 450 pages in a sitting. I enjoyed it. :) The story is the usual mix of super-natural powers, double-crossing, creative fights against terrible odds, doomful deadlines, and magic. It also has a few genuinenly sweet moments (e.g. dog reunion), and a Monty Python reference that is actually funny. I know, I know, I didn't believe it at first either, but there it is in black and white.

Every Heart a Doorway
3.5 Stars

A counterpoint to _We Are All Completely Fine_. In this book the characters are not survivors of horror movies, but instead are survivors of journey's to magical lands, e.g. Narnia, Wonderland, Hades, Ravenloft, etc. The young survivors are placed in a magical group home where they can share and process their experiences. Unlinke in Completely Fine, these characters generally look back fondly at their experiences, and want nothing more than to travel back to the sub-dimension that they lost.

This was a short and light book, and overall I liked it. If anything my criticism would be that it is too short, and parts of it felt rushed/only half-sketched. The writing was better than in Completely Fine, and while it wasn't always on target (e.g. Jack was a bit too much of a one dimensional character, always the same conversational beats) there were sections that were nicely evocative and heartfelt. I liked the focus on emotions over shotguns. I also liked the main character, who reminded me a bit of the much richer and much beloved tomb girl from _The Tombs of Atuan_.

The Killing Machine/The Palace of Love, by Jack Vance
3/4.0 Stars

I picked these two Vance books somewhat at random; it turns out that they are books #2 and #3 of a pentalogy. Doh. Still, it works out ok as they are largely separate stories that can be read independently. This series is Vance's take on James Bond; the protagonist is an investigator/hunter/spy in a sci-fi universe who is hunting the 5 larger than life villain who destroyed his home. Unlike the other Vance stories I've read, the main character is competent, focused, has some integrity, and is moderately attractive to women. There are still bits of Vancian word play and reversals, but there is not a constant stream of them like in Dying Earth. I do like the basic structure of the stories; each 150 page book covers the investigation and hunt for one of the villain as you find out more of their history, psychology, and abilities. The Killing Machine was ok, and in that book the villain is primarily concerned with Terror. You don't find that much out about the villain psychologically, the main reveal is more about the methods & abilities the villain has. The Palace of Love was better. It does have slow sections, but I liked how it is more involved with uncovering the villain's psychology (which is absolutely hilarious) rather than his powers. His eventual defeat is also wonderful, and doubly hilarious.

We're All Completely Fine
3.0 Stars

A short novel of horror and action about a bunch of survivors from various horror movie-plots who have come together in a therapy group. It's a bit like if a single person had survived each of the scenarios from Cabin in the Woods, and then they came together to talk about and process their experiences. Of course the past is never dead, it's not even past, and a new horror experience starts unfolding in the present.

On the plus side, the book is snappy, has an interesting conceit, and has several creatively creepy bits. On the neutral side, it is a surprisingly recent story. One of the characters is into video games, and he mentions a somewhat obscure indie game that was released like 6 months ago, which was kind of a shock, like "wow, this is hot off the presses.". On the negative side, the writer isn't all that great at writing. He's not bad exactly, but coming down off of Jeff Vandermeer it certainly highlights the difference in their skills. Vandermeer's characters all so vivid and distinct, while I had difficulty just following some of the therapy sessions in this book. That's not to say that the author is actively bad, just that the writing isn't one of the strong suites of the book. Anyway, it was short and enjoyable and creepy.

Debatable Space, Philip Palmer
2.8 Stars

An early work by Philip Palmer that is doesn't quite succeed, and seems more like a prototype for what he would do successfully in his later books. Palmer relies on a gonzo energy in his books, with all the dials turned up to 11 and the creativity turned up to 12. Gonzo energy is a dangerous tool though, and if you don't use it correctly, or if it is not quite gonzo enough, it falls flat on its face. Imagine a Gallagher act where Gallagher had the flu that day and was just kind of going through the motions. What is funny and interesting (or I suppose would be funny and interesting, never actually seen Gallagher), instead becomes kind of cringey, kind of creepy. Debtable Space has that problem, as Palmer had not quite got his formula right. There are ~50 page sections which just don't work, and it really doesn't earn its 500+ page length. The dials all seem turned up to 7 or 8, and the book falls in this uncomfortable middle space where the events aren't really believable/sensible but aren't completely wild and energetic either. The book isn't absolutely terrible and it at least reads quickly, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you are a Palmer completist.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
4.0 Stars

The final book in the Southern Reach trilogy. While not bad, the finale was not as good as the previous two entries, and it felt more like an extended epilogue than a true successor. Both of the first two books were at least partially about situations that are radically, radically different than they first appear. They both have multiple moments were the floor just drops out from under the reader. In the third book, I didn't really find that many surprises. It was more an explication and expansion of the ideas and history and lore that are sketched out in the first books. You are more familiar with what is going on, you don't really have a central character any more (instead switching between several characters that you are already somewhat familiar with, filling in their back story), and you don't really find out that much about what is happening or has happened to the world at large. The second book leaves off with the world being consumed by a metastasising infections of un-reality, so it is somewhat disappointing that you find out all of the back story for minor characters, but nothing concrete about the pending apocalypse. :)

That's not to say that Acceptance is bad, it is not; VanderMeer is both fast paced and peaceful, skillful and evocative. I enjoyed his space whales, I enjoyed making more sense out of the ripples in the sky, I enjoyed his double-walled hogs, I enjoyed his character and scenery portraits. And in all three books I enjoyed how the characters are continually bumping off each other, always in a state of moderate bafflement and irritation. Each ofthe characters seems to have their own "meta", and never really thinks about things in the same way as the other characters. It's a neat effect, and further supports this atmosphere of uncertainty and never quite having a full grasp or model of how the world works. Lowry in particular stands out as a great grotesque. So while this book lacked the lightning of the first two, it is still enjoyable and well crafted.

Multiple Choice, Alejandro Zambra
3.5 Stars

An exciting concept for a book that is let down by somewhat less than exciting execution. The conceit is that the book is in the form of a multiple choice test, with each question on the test acting as a short story or poem. So far so good. As an example of the form, here is one of the cleverer test questions, where you are given a series of statements and need to choose statements to remove in order to eliminate un-needed information.

      Question 57:
      1) A curfew is a regulation prohibiting free circulation in public within a determined area.
      2) It tends to be decreed in times of war or popular uprising.
      3) The dictatorship imposed one in Santiago, Chile, From September 11, 1973, until January 2, 1987.
      4) One summer evening my father went out walking with no destination in mind. It grew late, and he had to sleep at a friend's house.
      5) They made love, she got pregnant, I was born.

      A) None
      B) 5
      C) 1,2, and 3
      D) 4 and 5
      E) 2
So, it is a tiny story, and depending on which lines you remove you can unpack several other tiny stories each with different meanings/goals. This is neat and I like it! At its best it reminds me of the epilogues in _The Black Prince_. Now though, let's move on to the next test question.
      Question 58:
      1) I didn't want to talk about you, but it's inevitable
      2) I'm talking about you right now. And you're reading this, and you know it's about you.
      3) Now I am words that you read and wish did not exist.
      4) I hate you.
      5) You would like to have the power of a censor.
      6) So no one else would ever read these words.
      7) I hate you.
      8) You ruined my life.
      9) Now I am words you cannot erase.

      A) None
      B) A
      C) B
      D) C
      E) D
It is not exactly Pale Fire. Read as a statement about an ex, it is cringe-worthy. As a statement about a parent or a dictator, it's a bit better but still not great. So, the book has an uneven quality, where some parts are very likeable while others are much less clever/interesting. Overall I did like it (and the book is only 100 pages, so it is at least short), but it didn't quite live up to its potential.

Dresden Files, Books 2-14
3.7 Stars

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