Al Franken, Giant of the Senate Rothdas book review RSS
2.6 Stars

This will be an inverted-sandwich review, where I talk about the bad, then the good, and then the bad.

As a teen I read a couple of Al Franken's books at Barnes and Nobles, and as per best practices I just read them in the store rather than paying for them. I enjoyed the books though and thought they hilarious and intelligent/informative/useful, and that prompted me to purchase Franken's newest book a few decades later. Unfortunately, the latest Al Franken doesn't live up to my memories. First off, _Giant of the Senate_ does not really succeed as comedy. Franken is an engaging writer, and there are a few genuine chuckles and many more sensible-chuckles in the book, but it mostly hovers around a Dave-Berry level humor. There's also a fair number of jokes that either fall flat or are simply mean-spirited. I can't entirely blame Franken for the book not being an outstanding comedy, since his high office places a lot of boundaries on what he can say/joke about.

Fortunately, comedy is not the main focus of the book, it is more of a light spice or garnish that is sprinkled though out. The meat of the book and where it does well is in the details of running for the Senate and then being a Senator. There's a lot of interesting and lived detail about the requirements of the campaign trail, public speaking, running an office, passing a bill, asking for donations, and interacting with other Senators. There are interesting personal stories about a dozen different Senators and as many constituents, and overall it does well as a sort of optimistic/patriotic/idealistic call to make US politics better and to bridge divides and do right by the country. Quite apart from his books and comedy, I've been a fan of Franken the politician, and he is up there with Sanders, Warren, Wyden, and Udall as people who are consistently in the right (as I see it) and fighting for things I believe in. So it is not too surprising that I enjoy him writing about politics and what he believes in and why.

I'm just not sure it is enough. One of the stories in the book was how during a hearing Franken rolled his eyes at something Mitch McConnell was saying, and how this eye-roll was considered a super-serious breach of Senatorial decorum. And Franken further writes about how he made an abject apology, and Mitch was a complete mensch for accepting the apology. And this is fine and all, and might have been entirely appropriate 20 or 40 years ago, but I'm not sure it is sufficient for the current situation. E.g. a few years later we have republicans shouting "You Lie" during the President's speech, or assaulting journalists, or in Mitch's case pushing forward health care cuts that would kill on the order of 10K Americans per year. This is on top of the 10K-15K Americans who are killed each year from Republican governor's refusal to accept federal money to expand Medicaid, as part of their efforts to sabotage health care for political gain. And it is not like that will be the end of it, these are just some of the current set of moves being taken. And at that point, I feel like the situation is serious enough that if considered clearly, you can't just engage in comity and making nice and deeply apologizing for your eye-roll. Again, I realize that there are boundaries to what Franken can write as a Senator in good standing, and maybe it is useful to have people like him as the Sinn Fein to Sander's IRA. Still, as a clear and honest appraisal of our politics I don't feel like this book is up to the requirements of our time.

Update: 1-1-2018 Annnnnnd he's out. I'm not going to say I called it, but I called at least little bits of it. Item 1) Franken's comedy really isn't that good. As a person with a terrible sense of humor, I emphasize with him, but I also wish that somehow he could have been the man he was without ever telling a joke. That is to say he was a much better politician than he was a humorist, and the good he could have done was sabotaged by his poor sense of what is funny and what is not, leading to that embarassing picture. Item 2) They were never interested in comity, and it was a mistake to think so. Franken was taken out by the the GOP's little league version of a FSB operation, as well as our own over eagerness to sacrifice an effective leader on some somewhat dubious grounds. It was a mistake for Franken to have focused on komity when his opponents were focusing on killing. Anyway, my best wishes go out to the guy. Against the odds I hope he comes back angrier and wiser.

Matter, Iain M Banks
4.2 Stars

This was a re-read, as I seem to be re-reading the entire Culture series book by book for the 2nd (and in some cases 3rd or 4th) time. This is at least partly due to my efforts to get more people to read the Culture novels (which have paid off handsomely, see here!), and which has inevitably led me to re-read the novels so that I know what I am talking about/can verify that they haven't changed. So, _Matter_ was next on the list. And it was much like I remembered it, a good but not great entry in the series. There are the standard Banks' ideas of having the same themes played out at different levels of scale and of reality, as well his general propaganda in favor of not being a dick and working to order/design/imagine things so that suffering and inefficiency are minimized. A notable inclusion in this book is a sort of Shakespearean element, as many of the characters and their speech/thought/plot patterns are from a medieval level civilization. These Shakespearean threads are interwoven with and collide in amusing ways with the more standard Banksian space opera elements. Another notable inclusion was way too much detail about structures, hallways, door ways, passage ways, chambers, architecture, portals, and various accommodations. Maybe I just lack the sort of spatial imagination to appreciate these parts, but I feel like there was a lot of scene setting here that could have been skipped over. This is mostly focused around the Nameless city and the transport between the layers of the ShellWorld. Hmm, what other random things to note. I liked all of the characters? Basically every main character in this story is sort of quietly enjoyable and interesting to read about, while still being noticeably different from each other. I especially liked Anaplian and her sequence on joining the Culture and being uplifted to their standards. It is such a sweet and wonderful bit of utopianism. Banks really is the king of Utopianism, and it is always such a drop coming down off of him back to things like, say, American politics.

Historical Note: I first read _Matter_ years ago, so many years ago that it was the source of my Steam Id. I always liked the Aultridia and their hapless persecution and fairly good intentions.

Brass Man, Neal Asher
1.0 Stars

I skimmed through this one, just to confirm my first impressions of the author. Yep, he is god-awful. And so many murders. Why so many murders?

A Return to Laughter
5.0 Stars

Another delightful anthropology book. From what I can tell, the defining feature of field anthropologists is a certain insane self-confidence. In this case it is a young and introverted American lady who goes to study a Nigerian tribe, despite not knowing their language or having any camping experience. The start of the book reminded me of a great passage from _Soon I will be Invincible_, in which a super villain does this comic-cliche act of dressing up in spandex and going with his battle-robots to rob a bank. The bare events are dumb and cliche, but the book makes the experience real and forces on your mind just how terrifying it would be try something like that, and the immense chutzpah you would need to walk into a bank with spandex and a freeze ray and declare yourself the enemy of society. Similarly, I'm sure people leave to study other places all the time, but the start of this book brings home just how difficult and unsettling it would be to not know the language, the culture, or even the bare techne of how to live in that biome. The author is very talented, and does a great job of relating her experiences as she gradually unravels the nested puzzles of the tribe's language and culture. You gradually come to know different tribes people with her, and she studies them and their character and actions with a depth that would not be out of place in a Jane Austin or Iris Murdoch novel. Her task isn't made easier by the fact that the people generally subscribe to the Vancian best practices of low-key amorality/deception, which makes unraveling even simple, dinner food related questions quite difficult. Later on in the novel there are more complex plots, as she starts to follow the political struggles of the tribe and learns more about witch craft. In the end she understands their culture better, but is still apart from their them and the brutality/callousness they have to endure. A defining moment for her is when several tribes people are joking about a trick played on a blind person, which of course as Westerners we could never engage in (Imgur front page).

Great book, two thumbs up, would study foreign cultures again.

3.6 Stars

A short, readable, layman's take on drug use in the Nazi regime. This isn't so much a magisterial history book as it is an author who found an interesting angle and sources and then ran with it. The book is full of stories and tidbits and stats about Nazi drug use and policy, and looks at the entire Nazi period through the lens of pharmacology. The Communists had a phrase which I like, "Being is consciousness". They meant it mostly in class terms, but I think it is even more apt when expanded to look at the whole body system rather than just your job. This book makes frequent use of the "Being is consciousness" view to explain Hitler's policy/military actions through his doping regimen.

Around 20% of the book covers the institutional role of drugs in German society and the third reich. For example, there is the the 35 million doses of meth that they ordered and distributed to the military before the invasions of Poland and France (best name for it: "Pilot's Salt"). Or later on there were the wild experiments to try to find a miracle drug that could banish tiredness in the pilots of single-man submarines. It turns out that a massive dose of cocaine, meth, and oxy is not the answer. Instead this just leads to your submariners hallucinating for 4 days straight before coming down and immediately surrendering to the first people they see. Other interesting bits of institutional trivia include the Nazi War on Drugs (which resembles our own about as much as you would expect), the tons of pure cocaine shipped around by the Nazi intelligence services as bribes to their allies, and how drug experimentation programs tied together the army, navy, SS, and the concentration camps. Oh, and the use of meth laced chocolates, meth laced chewing gum, meth tablets, and meth-paste tubes. Meth! It's a hell of a drug.

The other 80% of the book is the more personal tale of Dr. Morell, who became the doctor and personal drug distributor to Hitler. Morell started off catering to high end Berliners, offering shots and other cures. He was recommended to Hitler's personal photographer to take care of an STD, and that in turn earned Morell an invitation to a dinner with Hitler, who was suffering from digestive problems. Morell treated this with a fecal transplant, which was sensible and worked, and which in turn earned Morell the present of a large mansion in a ritzy neighborhood and his initial place as Hitler's physician. A this point Morell was basically riding a tiger; he now had a large mansion that he couldn't afford the maintenance on, as well as a murderous dictator who was constantly looking to him for cures/fixes. Morell made the best of the situation though. He quickly learned to abuse his position of influence, and to secure his position by doping Hitler up on ever wilder ingredients. Over five years he took the dictator on a grand journey across the entire field of pharmacology. I think the only thing Morell didn't inject him with was marijuana. He did though use glucose, caffeine, meth, morphine, cocaine, oxy, a variety of heart medications and uppers, belladonna, strychnine, testosterone, ground up and liquefied animal organs, glands, and testes, and approximately 80 other substances. In a typical week there could be dozens of injections and pills. There are many stories about this, but two of my favorite are:
1) Hitler was feeling very low and nearly catatonic because he was obviously losing the war and his health was in shambles and he had an upcoming meeting with Mussolini where it looked like the other dictator was going to break up with him and withdraw from the war. Morell comes up with one his best injections yet, sending Hitler into the stratosphere. Hitler pops up and goes to his meeting, where he literally talks for three hours straight, not allowing Mussolini to get a single word in edge-wise (sound like anyone we know?). In frustration Mussolini puts off the break up for a later date.
2) Morell needed money to pay for the upkeep on his house, since even though Morell was Hitler's physician the job carried only a nominal salary. So he has the plan to get into the "vitamin" business and creates his own brand of vitamin cakes (basically little sugar pastries with a few odd herbs in them). First he convinces Hitler to eat them, with the idea that once Hitler is doing it everyone else will want to. And it works! From there it spreads to the general staff, and from there Morell picks up contracts to sell his vitamin cakes to the army and to the civilian population. Morell tries to sell them to the air force, however a competent general in the air force looks into it and refuses to buy, on the grounds that they don't need to purchase over priced lemon bars and send a dozen of them up with every plane as essential materials. Morel in turn uses his influence and has the general fired, so that he can continue his biscuit-selling scheme in order to pay for his mansion. Teutonic efficiency at its finest.

Anyway! I liked this book overall. It has a wealth of interesting details, it provides a compelling explanation for some of the high level Nazi dysfunction and bad decisions, and it never wavers from depicting these people as terribly as they deserve.

The Fortunate Fall
3.4 Stars

A book that fit what I was looking for. I've been wanting to read some Jack Womack, but the internet has been letting me down, and this book filled the want nicely. The Fortunate Fall is a mid-90's cyber punk story, set 250 years in the future. A Doll House situation has been reached where people can CRUD into other people's minds, and this has led to global disasters and horrors before finally an unstable peace is reached. Society maintains itself through PostCops (a "cop" wet-ware that is downloaded into people's minds to get them to behave as temporary cops when needed. It is like a fast and involuntary and potentially homicidal jury duty.) and Weavers (NSA like figures that constantly scour the internet to prevent and contain any mind-viruses or taboo information that might spread and infect people like in the bad old days). I don't want to say too much about the story in order to avoid spoilers, but there is a cetacean, there is a wAIfu, there are dominionist concentration camps, there is a police state vs individualists, there is a fluidity about identity and trust. The entire thing is somewhat dark, somewhat cynical, well written, and enjoyable.

A Gentleman of Leisure, by P.G. Wodehouse
2.6 Stars

A lesser Wodehouse. There are some sensible chuckles, but it is definitely inferior to PGW's more famous books.

Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
2.6 Stars

I can confidently say that this is a fine book to listen to while laying down caulk. They switched narrators for this one, and while the new narrator is not as outstanding as the old he is still perfectly serviceable to listen to while you watch the silicone flow. The sequel picks up where Wolf Hall left off, with Cromwell's rise to pre-eminence and the death of Thomas Moore. It then covers the political maneuvering during Anne Boleyn's reign, and the replacement of Anne Boleyn with wife number 3. As before, there is a great deal of competence porn, and Cromwell being in charge and taking care of things and people. In this case though the events have a darker tone. It is less Cromwell rationalizing the nation's finances and more Cromwell murdering his political enemies and fully embracing the courtier/Game of Thrones life style. There is also a bit of the Peter Principal at work here, as it is not at all clear that Cromwell can swim in high level political waters as well as he can take care of financial and legal matters. Near the end of the book he says that he is ready for next political knife fight that is surely coming, but I don't see any evidence of it, or indication that Cromwell has some way of handling his enemies or Henry's fickleness over the long term.

So, that is the basic idea. Spunky kid makes good, rises to high office, and is gradually corrupted by it. I'm not sure that this is a story that needs 1200+ pages to tell, but again it is fine for listening to while you do house repairs. Still, listening to this story and Wolf Hall, I kept being reminded of a bit from one of Naomi Novik's books, like book #4 in her dragon waifu series, where the dragons start telling stories to each other. The dragons are not like the hypothetical lion, where even if he could speak we could not understand him. Rather the dragon's story making process is recognizably human, of taking very basic desires and then building elaborate and intricate shells of events and words around them. It's just that the dragons have moderately different basic desires then humans do, so their stories are focused on different ideas and values. In the case of Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies, Henry the 8th's desire that generates all these words is very plain, and it can't help but feel a little silly reading so very many words built up around such a simple and mechanical impulse. I can't say that there is a lot to learn from the experience, and so I am retroactively taking away .1 stars from Wolf Hall. Take that, Booker Prize committee.

A City Dreaming, by Daniel Polansky
3.6 Stars

420 Blaze it up like Merlin! That is what I would say if I was at all into drug-wizard culture(1), which I am not, but the book is. The book is also into a general hipsterism and cool-struggle(2), and sexing many people causally(3), and New York(4), all of which I'm also not into. So the book starts off with a lot of strikes against it, and initially I bounced off the thing after ~30 pages. However! After returning to it and reading further, I started to like the book more and more. Part of it is that the initial stories are some of the poorer ones, with the best ones being further on in. Part of it is also that the narrator grew on me, with his apathy and confused morality and crab like way of moving through the world. The stories are bite sized, which I like, and they rely more on deception and surprise, which I also like. The magic was neat (in particular some of the Outsider or Infernal zones), the writing was well written, and even the flawed stories have 2 or 3 interesting things going on in them. It is a testament to the author's skill that I ended up liking the thing despite not liking most of its constituent parts. :) I would love to see more writing from him, after he's matured a bit and moved out of New York.

  1. visual novels are my anti-drug
  2. distracts from the important things in life, see (1)
  3. missionary for purpose of procreation, as God intended
  4. the general formula is: (A) I am good/correct (B) I am paying enormous amounts of money to live in a rat-infested closet in NY -> therefore there must be something special and ineffable about this closet since otherwise (A) would be violated. This formula is then carried out millions of times, resulting in all the bullshit about NY that gets written.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
3.8 Stars

Before anything, there are 2 notes for this book. One is that I listened to it via audio book, and it benefited from an amazing narrator. The narrator has several great accents and is not afraid to use them. His Bishop Woosley is immensely self satisfied, his HRE ambassador is wonderfully weaselly, and his Thomas Moore is delightfully snide and vehement. So, kudos to the narrator for making listening a continually enjoyable experience. The second note is that the book is *long*. I was listening to the thing on a daily basis for literally a month, and checked how to see how close the ending was. It had to be close, right? Nope, I was 45% of the way through. The combination of the ~700 pages and the narrator's languorous delivery make this a long term listen.

So, what is the book about? It is mostly competence and social-competence porn, about Cromwell and all the ways he is useful to people during his life. Imagine Kvothe from the _Name of the Wind_, but he is older and his polarity towards authority has been reversed. Instead of constantly rebelling and having to get the last word in, Cromwell takes his talents and turns them towards profit-making, efficiency, management, and serving nobles with just the right flavors of obsequiousness. This isn't as bad as it sounds; he is generally a force for reason, modernization, order, and mercy in a rather cruel and benighted age. He sees to his family and their futures, tries to not execute anyone who does not really need it, and is just generally a cool-dude in matters administrative and political. It is all fine, if a little stretched out. The author has nice patches of description and memory and dialog, and there are countless jaunts out into food, architecture, friends, associates, clothing, books, children, wives, religion, and a dozen other subjects. This does mean however that the words-to-plot ratio is low. Again, I enjoyed the slow ride due to the narrator, but I could easily see having the opposite reaction if I had actually read the book and was in a hurry. Also, due to the sheer length of the book the effect of the plot is attenuated; Cromwell gets his revenge on a person or two near the end of the book, but by that time the injuries Cromwell had suffered from them are a month ago in real time. And my reaction was like, "oh, yes, I vaguely remember that." In any case, it is not a particularly plot heavy book, it is more about a slow journey through an interesting fictional character's life.

Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
3.6 Stars

Unlike most fantasy series, this one has been steadily getting better as it goes. The third entry is my favorite one yet, and it avoids/ameliorates some of the problems that I had with the first two entries. The schemes are a bit less bad, and in some ways the entire thing is just less dire and more fun than the previous entries. The main focus is on a contested election in a republic, where the election itself is just a game played by the city's real rulers, the mages. So in many ways the stakes are less than life and death, and more about social and economic competition and deception. In other ways the stakes are higher, as you find out more about the larger world building, the previously mysterious mages, and the more cosmic factors at play. The author also introduces more of his magic system, which is often neat and intricate and interesting. I feel like the more the author gets away from standard stories and tropes and into his own creations the better he does. There was even a neat moment when I thought he was going to explain away the success of some of Locke's past harebrained schemes by saying that it was, literally, magic. That is to say, it was not just authorial fiat which explains why Locke was so convincing, but a sort of sub-conscious magic that was playing out and resulting in his success. Sort of how in the Star Wars movies you have The Force as a stand in for what the author wants to happen. The author didn't end up going that way, but it was still a neat possibility.

Oh, and it would not be a review of a Scott Lynch book if I didn't find something to complain about. This time the (marginally less annoying) fly in the ointment is the romance between Locke and Sabetha. This has to be one of the most extended and badly waged and romances I have read, and you really just want to shake either/both of them and tell them to stop wasting time and to find someone who they are actually attracted to and fit with. I feel like CJ Cherryh or your average fan-fic writer would have known how to fix the situation; make them gay. That's not a suggestion that I make often, but in this case Locke/Jean really is a better connection than Locke/Sabetha. Ok Scott Lynch, you know who to send the royalty checks to for your big reveal in book 4!

Anyway! I just generally like the characters and world and sort of low key adventures that happen. It is not great literature, but it is on average enjoyable.

Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch
3.4 Stars

Going into this book, my expectations were kind of low. I remembered the previous entry in the series as having high points, but also as being marred by being somewhat turgid writing and a somewhat generic thieves guild setting and silly plots and so on. But I started reading _Red_, and for at least the first 200 pages I was steadily surprised as I enjoyed the book more and more. The setting is much improved, and moves on to a sort of Dishonored 2 locale with complicated clockworks and dozens of different poisons and more interesting capers and politics. There wasn't any long origin story to slog through, it was just the characters in their prime doing neat things. So at 200 pages in, I was ready to love it. And then the book jumps the shark. It moves everything out to sea and switches to being a naval/pirate adventure story. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised as the title is _Red Seas Under Red Skies_, and it does have a picture of a boat on the cover, but it still came as a disappointment and the quality of the book fell for the around 500 page of naval adventure that followed. Part of the problem is that by moving out to sea, the book sacrifices the momentum it had built up over the previous 200 pages. All of the main plots are put on the back burner, the characters have new "origin stories" as they learn the ways of the sea, and a completely new set of characters and locales are introduced. Also, the book suffers by comparison to the many, many, many high quality naval books that have been written before. Foremost in my mind are the Jack Aubrey/Steven Maturin stories, of which I have read 20, and which have basically conquered the genre for me. So the book loses its momentum, moves into an area that is already dominated by great writers, and generally becomes becalmed [Ed. you really should have started the naval puns earlier in the review]. The naval stories are ok, but they not great. And then the last 60 pages of the book wraps up all of the main plot points that were started in that first 200 pages.

This structure/framework of the book is unfortunate, as I think Scott Lynch has it in him to write some excellent stories. Just make them shorter Scott! Write a 260 page book that gleams, and not a 760 page book with all sorts of padding. Take a vacation, read some Isaac Babel. Also, work on your plotting. :) As with the first book, several of the plots just did not make sense. There is one character and his super power is supposed to be that he is supremely skilled at conning/convincing/out-planning people, but in the story it just does not work and often comes through as authorial fiat. Supposedly smart people continually fall for really dumb tricks, or come up with plots/justifications that make no sense at all. E.g. there is a banker/casino owner who stores the merchant prince's money. The military leader is at cold war with the merchant princes. The protagonist has a plan to steal *all* of the merchant prince's money. The protagonist falls into the hands of the military leader. At this point the military leader could just say "go ahead", as stealing the money would win him the contest. Instead, he puts everyone on a boat. :0

Not all of the plots are like this, but several of them are and they just do not work. Ok, now on to book three which is hopefully boat free.

Sharp Ends
3.0 Stars

A series of short stories that are set in Abercombie's universe and fill in the back story to his main characters or add a bit of detail and color to some of his tangential characters. I've always had trouble enjoying Abercombie, but I haven't been exactly sure why. It *seems* like I should enjoy his writing, but something has always been a bit off. After reading and thinking about these stories I believe the problem is that his characters are always so unhappy with their world. Generally speaking, people come to a an equilibrium with their circumstances (or flame out horribly). E.g. living in medieval times was in many ways worse than our present day circumstances, but I don't think that they were generally more unhappy than we are. Like us they would have good days and bad days, victories and defeats, and their happiness would fluctuate around a rough human or cultural average.

In Abercombie's world, everyone is just unhappy. The mercenaries are unhappy, the thieves are unhappy, the farmers are unhappy, the barbarians are unhappy. And I don't think it is justified! Like, if you've spent the majority of your life camping out and hiking through mud and wilderness, I don't think those things would (generally) make you upset. But his characters always are, as if they were modern day coddled Americans forced to do those things. And I think that this continual and unjustified level of complaining is one of the reasons I don't really connect with his stories.

These stories are some of his better ones though, and they have sort of an action-movie/Tarantino vibe to them. These aren't trying to be "real" or organic; they all have a slickness or artistry to them. Some of the better ones are a knock-down drag out fight in an abandoned old west town, the earlier Shev/Javre stories about a slight thief and a Zarya like bruiser, the hagiography/propaganda written about a mercenary commander by his aide-de-camp, and the story of rescuing an artifact from a barbarian tribe. I think all of these would have been better if I had read their parent stories more recently, but even as stand-alones they were acceptable-to-fine. Anyway, Abercombie, would it kill you to smile occasionally?

Five Women Who Loved Love
3.2 Stars

On second thought, let’s not go to Japan. ‘Tis a silly place.

A series of 5 short and silly stories about love and folly in feudal Japan. Some characteristic events are: a young married woman accidentally gets in what looks like a compromising situation with a 70 year old married man, and the old man's wife starts harassing the younger woman. Incensed, the younger lady goes on and actually has an affair with the 70 year old. Or, there is an ugly man who has his heart set on a beautiful girl, and he hires a crone to set them up. The crone arranges for the girl to take a trip to various shrines, so that the man can join the girl along the way and make advances. However, when the time comes the girl catches the eye of another man and he also joins the trip, and the two men sabotage each other as the three of them visit sacred shrines. Or a person is making devout prayers to the Buddha, only to see a handsome man walk by. The prayer and then throws their piety to the wind to chase after the handsome man. And so forth.

The stories are amusing, and are notable for being written in the early 1600's. The stories have aged very well, and/or the translator has done a good job of updating them, and you could see any of the stories being a plot line in a modern anime or an episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They have an almost Vancian mockery of idealism and the stories that we tell ourselves. One concession the author does make to the mores of the time is that basically all of the stories end in tragedy. The meat of each story is an absurdist love comedy, but then at the very end of each tale the author goes "oh, but they violated the strict social laws, and so everyone involved is executed/commits suicide/becomes a nun." I never placed much weight on this aspect of the stories, and enjoyed them for what seemed like their core.

Judge Dee, The Chinese Gold Murders
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.

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