A decent enough, YA type adventure in the vein of Spirited Away. A young lady goes on an adventure to rescue her father in a mythical-medieval Europe, faces challenges, and makes friends and clever decisions along the way. I was warned beforehand that this might be some sort of Christian allegory, and I think that warning contributed a good third of my enjoyment of the book since it is not at all clear what the allegory is. Is the Pope of Storms a symbol for climate change? Are witches and their creations a metaphor for technology and the inevitable AI rebellion? Unclear! But it is fun trying to fit the pieces together, even if I suspect the author never had that clear of a picture of what they were trying to say. There is some earnest Christianity in here (a page or three, easily skipped over), but it didn't significantly detract from the story. If anything I thought the earnest Christianity was overshadowed by the semi-heretical world building (e.g. communion wafers let you talk directly to the Trinity, who despite being well meaning are mostly out of touch and unhelpful advisors, kind of like jumped up school counselors). Anyway, it's a clever and above average YA adventure, but not a great general interest book.
A very short and very provoking book, but not one that I'd fully agree with or one that really applies to me, a person who has donated
double triple digits of money to Elizabeth Warren. The basic idea is that the rich are terrible and the poor are good and our capitalist system might have some minor issues we should deal with. This is all fine, though again, a good deal of it doesn't apply to me since I've consciously bailed out of a large chunk of what The Fever complains about. Also, about 2/3s of the way through the book engages in a sort of bingo-cardism, where it quickly lists off all the counter-arguments that people would likely make to its message. But I've had this complaint before in more online discussions, that just because you name a counter-argument and place it on a bingo card, that doesn't actually mean you've dis-proven the counter-argument. And I think in this case the counter-arguments have a lot a weight and are more accurate and more correct, and that the book's emotional message is naive and short sighted and impractical and incorrect. Reading the play, you do fiercely want to converse with the author and enlighten him. Anyway, if nothing else the book succeeds in making you salty and thinky in a remarkably short amount of pages.
Terms of Enlistment
Would you like to commit war crimes? Y/N
Oh no! The JAG is on your case for killing more American civilians than the average 9/11 attacker. How unfair! Is this all the fault of the liberals? Y/N
So... I didn't like the politics of this book. It's also sort of low key racist. It also fails to engage with how 150 years of advancing technology would change how we fight wars. Instead it posits a universe with star fleets and FTL and anti-grav and dozens of interstellar colonies, but otherwise things are still kind of the same just more so. Also, the military is good and democratic socialism is bad, except for the military's socialism which is good. I was promised that aliens would show up in this book but I didn't make it that far.
Edit: ok, I actually did end up making it to the aliens. This part was ok! So if you do want to read this book, just take the first half of the book, rip it out, and then read the rest.
Perhaps my favorite Polansky book, this is a short and stark tale of gun-slinger violence and betrayal and revenge. This is what Abercombie's _Best Served Cold_ should have been, with larger than life characters, fast and violent action, and a continual series of clever and occasionally funny plot-beats. While many novels are like a NetFlix television series (drawn out, stuffed with mediocre filler in order to create 10 hours of run time), _The Builders_ was closer to a movie. It actually has to tell its story and make its point within 90 minutes. That was also the approximate reading time of the novel, and I raced through the entire thing in one morning. Oh, and all the characters are animals, in the vein of _Tooth and Tail_ or the _Red Wall_ series. Or maybe like _Mouse Guard_, but with old West weaponry and dark Western theming. And now one minor spoiler, the best part of the book:
There's a fearsome character you hear about, "The Quaker". It turns out he's a rattle-snake. Get it? Quaker? Rattle? Literary genius.
Not a terrible book, but also not one that particularly excited me. The basic outline is that during the days of the Roman empire, a Vancian scoudrel type merchant character goes up from the Roman portions of Gaul and into the Gaullic portions of Gaul and then far beyond, trading, tricking, getting people killed, and in his adventures laying down the outlines of the Norse myths that we are familiar with today. While the book was decently written, it had a few issues that kept me from really enjoying it. These issues are mostly that Wotan wasn't more like Vance's Dying Earth series. The characters tend to be men of few words, and don't have the overblown and baroque rhetoric of Vance's characters. Rather they have a weird sort of pre-modern way of speaking and thinking, where motivation isn't always clear and there isn't a rich inner dialog. There will be actions, but only later if ever are the reasons for the actions clear. Another issue is that the balance between the main character and the world was off, equipoise was not maintained. With Cudgel in the Dying Earth, Cudgel's shittiness towards other people was always balanced by their shittiness towards him, e.g. Cugel might trick people and do bad deeds, but his deeds were always repayed in approximate proportion (and vice versa). Which goes a long way towards being able to enjoy and laugh at the story. It's Always Sunny has a similar balance, and it's the only thing that makes these sorts of comic Chaotic Evil characters bearable, that their schemes injure themselves as often as other people. In Wotan the balance is off, and while the main character suffers somewhat, it's not proportionate to what he causes to happen to other people. Which makes it difficult to sympathize with him and laugh at his adventures, and makes it more difficult to ignore the problematic parts of the story.
A final issue I had was that while I get what the author was doing (provide a potential origin for Norse myths through realistic actions and events), it just didn't do much for me. I'm not super into Norse mythology, and I didn't find the author's origin-seeds to be particularly clever. There is an additional weird/interesting thing going on, that while Wotan is laying down a realistic basis for the Norse myths that we have today, the story also has super-natural elements in that there is an actual Greek-God driving Wotan's actions. So it's a Myth-Realism-Myth sandwhich. Which might have been tastier to me, except that the underlying myth starts getting into the noble and tragic destiny of the German people and their martial spirit (and mentions the battle of Jutland?), which is like ehhhhhh. Not necessarily Nazi but again not really my area of interest.
Anyway! It's a competent book, but not particularly engrossing and it took me ~2 weeks to read 200 pages of it in bits and bursts. There was another 400 pages to go and I decided to opt out of that experience when I came to the end of the first story-part.
Hooligans of Kandahar
Booof. This book is the extremely first person account of doing a tour duty in Afghanistan as an army grunt. It doesn't necessarily tell you anything you didn't know about the war there, but it does present the things that you know at a very close level of detail and with tons of lived experience.
Another way of describing the book and its author would be: "what if every aspect of my life and all of my decisions were the complete opposite?" So there's a whole bunch of switches that get flipped to their opposite: dirt, violence, personal courage, sleep deprivation, weight lifting, food, temperature, drinking, personal hygiene, sanitation, etc. etc. Suffice to say that I'm happy with my choices. :D The stories do make for good reading though. The start of the book and the end of the book are a bit rough, but the middle 80% which describes living and soldiering in Afghanistan is compelling and interesting.
A third (and hopefully final) way of describing the book would be to say that the book is about the difference between theory and reality, between abstractions on a military map or in an opinion piece and what is actually happening in the world. So you have mine-detectors, but they don't actually detect mines. You have Afghan army units, but they absolutely will not fight. You have police, but they will refuse to act in even the most basic ways (e.g. drive this wounded civilian to a hospital) unless bribed. You have provincial governors, but they are arguably Taliban. You have reconstruction projects, that no ones uses and are abandoned and are eventually turned into forts by insurgents, and then bombed by coalition air strikes and turned back into rubble in some sort of weird cycle of life. It's just one thing after another that exists only on paper or only in the dream-castles built up within documents and speeches. It's theory crafting. It's what happens when you try and take Western idealism and try to force it on a Vancian society.
Afterward 1: The author also does podcasting, which is where I first heard about him. One of their better out-takes is here (tons of cursing, NSFW, Trigger Warning: Academic PTSD).
Afterward 2: After a long percolation, there actually is one other thing the book taught me/made me realize, which is just how much human damage gets hidden from the casaulty figures by advances in medical treatment. Out of the ~20 soldiers the author was grouped with, ~100% of them had some sort of fairly serious injury from their time in Afghanistan. On the low end, these are things like ankle injuries or chronic lower back pain, which never get officially recorded but will stay with a person and crap up the rest of their life in minor daily ways. Ramping up a bit, there's a host of psychological issues of various levels of severity, and then beyond that the actual concussions, brain damage, and serious wounds caused by combat. In the US Civil War, about half of his group would have been dead from the wounds they suffered, which we would rightly recognize as a horrific casaulty rate, enough to destroy a unit. But thanks to advances in first aid, transport, and surgery, only a few of his unit were listed as injured and none of them actually died. And when you just look at the basic casualty figures, it hides just how much his group (and one assumes other groups) went through and were hurt.
Nightflyers/Nightflyers, by George RR Martin
This is a double review: The first part of the review is for the recent SyFy series, _NightFlyers_, and the second part of the review is of the collection of sci-fi stories by George RR Martin, which includes and is named after its longest story, _Nightflyers_.
So, the SyFy series. It's dummmmmmb. It shares some similarities with BlindSight, so just imagine that, except everyone on the ship is an idiot. The best thing to be said about the series is that they did a great job of picking actors with really interesting faces/presentation. Basically all of the main actors are really neat to look at, without being typically Hollywood handsome. But yeah, the air-mix in their ship needed more oxygen.
The actual short stories are considerably better. They're not hard sci-fi, and many of them have silly ideas like psionics, but despite that they're generally clever and intelligent stories. Like with his fantasy political stories, they rarely go for the obvious plotting and instead tend to fold back on expectations 2 or 3 or 4 times in interesting ways. The story _NightFlyers is best in this regard, and upsets expectations several times while still having a "warm" rather than a clever ending. Another way of putting it is that GRRM tends to make plotting and writing decisions that more stereotypically sci-fi author's would not. And all the stories are just competently written and enjoyable to move through. There are one or two stories where a sci-fi nerd will see the ending at the ~50% mark of the story, but despite that I still enjoyed finishing them out. Oh right, and what are the stories about. They're all small tales, of groups of a few or a few dozen people exploring, trading, mining, or scienceing. Kind of a sci-fi version of the _Ballad of Buster Scruggs_, they just try to be small and interesting and thematic stories in the genre. Oh, and one notable bit that I have to mention; in one of the stories there is a couple where the lady is a leading scientist and the guy is technician/poet. The guy is feeling depressed. And about half way through the book the lady scientist creates an entire ********, which, you know, is pretty impressive. And within a few minutes of that she's then doing emotional labor for the technician guy. :D Anyway, it's not really the point of the story, but I thought it was a funny bit-part. Actually the more I think about it the funnier the whole story is.
The Voice of our Shadows
An interesting and well written book that completely failed at several key points. The basic structure of the novel is that it's a standard piece of literary fiction, with the normal elements of growing up and writing and Europe and affairs, and then half way through it introduces fantastical/horror elements as one person in the story might be an actual magician.
On the positive side, the book is relatively brief and often well written. There's one part near the middle which is a good example of the author's voice:
"My stepmother had begun to lose the nice figure she'd brought to their marriage, but at the same time, she looked both more relaxed and more sure of herself than when I'd last seen her".
Many writers would come up with some variation the first half of that sentence, with varying levels of venom or acidity or acuity. I like though that the author also has the second thought, which is more humane and fair minded and takes in the broader picture outside of his immediate concerns. This pattern occurs frequently through the book, where the author will cover expected beats but will also have a second and more interesting level of thought or insight or consideration. It's not a work of blazing genius, but it does make the story quietly readable and enjoyable. These good points persist through most the story. The bad points of the story are more like sharp, critical failures. There are three of them.
1) The ending. It is extremely abrupt, and little-to-no groundwork was laid to support the ending. You can imagine War and Peace stopping with "and it was all just a dream" to give you an idea of how bad this was. The most charitable interpretation is that a dead, mind reading magician drove the narrator insane, or else completely scared him using illusions and mind magic and his long harbored guilt. Only slightly more plausible endings are "the narrator was always insane" or "the narrator exists inside a hell dimension controlled by his sadistic older brother". All of these explanations require giant leaps of faith and copious head scratching, and are literally the only way that I can make sense of what goes on.
2) The affair. This was less obnoxious, but was still a critical failure in the novel. One of the key plot points is that the narrator sleeps with the magician's wife, and this is taken as a giant betrayal. Which, ok, I guess it is. But at the same time it's like holy shirtballs, every single circumstance of their time together was pushing for this to happen. It was the least shocking thing ever; there are large parts of the novel where it seemed like the magician was actively pushing them to sleep together. At this point I'd call on Mike Pence, Taylor Swift, and Iris Murdoch. If you don't want to have a terrible-idea -affair, don't place yourself in the position to have a terrible-idea-affair. It's basic interpersonal mechanics. But in the story, the 40+ year old magician is like "nope, this is fine" and then gets super offended when the absolutely expected happens. Compare this to another fictional magician love story by the super literary Jim Butcher. Spoiler, but in that series of books, the narrator and his magical study-buddy fall in love, because they are teens and of course duh. And their mentor planned it that way and setup their time together to promote that, because that would be useful to him. Anyway! If Jim Butcher is surpassing you in realistic relationship dynamics, your magician needs to go back to charm school. zing.
3) The Guilt. Finally, there is this consistent judgment through out the book that the narrator is a scumbag and that his older brother and his delinquent friend were vital and full of life and magical and wonderful. And it's just completely dumb. I can understand this judgment as like the narrator's trauma reaction from having to deal with his sadistic older brother while growing up, and that completely skewing his viewpoint, but it's incredibly wrong. But I don't feel like many of the reviewers on GoodReads really understood that, and it's not clear if the author did either, e.g. whether he actually thought that way or whether he meant for it only to be that the narrator thought that way. Anyway! Just for the record, the older brother his friend were both violent morons who played stupid games and won stupid prizes. In the key scene where the older brother gets it, there are just RIRs all over the place. As with the affair, it's the second least surprising thing ever.
Devil's Engine, by Mark Summer
The same, but different. The narrative advances a few years, and rather than a young buck trying to complete his heroes journey, we now have a Sheriff trying to preserve his family and his town in a changing world. The structure of the book is also a little more fancy, as it has a _Time Traveler's Wife_ situation going on. This was both a weakness and a strength. A weakness in terms of the frequent deus-ex-machina, as the Traveler shows up to arrange or save pieces on the board. It's a bit like how in LoTR, Gandalf or some Eagles or some other bullshit is always showing up to save the day, and it drains tension/immersion from the story. The Traveler is a strength though in that it pays off in some surprisingly sweet ways later on in the story. What else. The ending wasn't quite as good, a few of the key events from the first book are swept under the rug, and the author to continues to be unable to decide if prostitution is a terrible fate or a fine profession. Despite those minor problems, the writing, pacing, plotting, and world building were all better than par.
Devil's Tower, by Mark Summer
A surprisingly high quality adventure story set in an Old, Weird West that has had a ShadowRun-type awakening of magical talents in the wake of the Civil War. There were a lot of things to like about this novel. The powers are inventive, the pace is fast, the world building was interesting, the writing astute, and things could get unexpectedly dire/gory/horrific. So, in more detail. For the world building, I like that the author recognizes how powers would completely upend society. Just like how a nomadic society tends toward certain social structures and an industrial society tends toward others, the fact that no one person can ever have that much direct physical power pushes us to cooperate and imposes at least a modicum of society and equality on us. But with heroic/magical powers, all of those previous relations go out the window and its not clear that anything like past human society would be able to survive. And the book takes that as the premise, that the West and the United States as a whole are unraveling as allegiances to ideas and countries are replaced with allegiance to whichever individual has the raw talent to keep an area safe. And the talents run the whole gamut; there is shape changing, mind-afire seeing, scrying, foretelling, shouting, carving, elemental bending, a mess of different summonings, and "chattering", a speaking in tongues type talent that manipulates the world directly. And those are just the basic ones, a number of wilder ones are introduced later on. So! You take those powers and world building, and mix them with more traditional Western themes of Sheriffs and Black Hats, Soldiers and Indians, blood and revenge. It's shotguns and strange magics. I enjoyed the crud out of it.
Edit: While looking up the author on Amazon, I found some recent blog posts by him. Mark Summer is apparently now a leftist writer for DailyKos. Noice!
Orconomics: A Satire, by J Zachary Pike
A theoretically humorous fantasy novel that falls down due to some regrettable comedy choices and conflicting thematic elements.
The basic idea of the novel is to take what Venture Brothers did to super heroes and apply the same conceit to D&D. So you have a formalized Heroes Guild, with Quest contracts that members sign up for, membership cards you earn points on for killing monsters until you rank up, licensed vendors that only sell items to heroes with enough Heroes Guild ranks, etc. And then there are associated ideas like a Thugs Guilds (used to control/do violence to adventurers), Venture funds that buy options on unclaimed treasure hoards, NPC papers that monster races can get in order to be exempt from hero violence, etc. etc. more etc. The story follows a down-and-out group of heroes within this system as they are roped into a seemingly doomed quest on behalf of an eccentric religious prophet.
And now the complaining begins. The problems start from the first chapter, where the main character (a dwarven berzerker) mugs a low level hero and sells the hero's equipment to buy beer. And the economics of it don't work out at all: the hero had a ton of high quality magical gear, and yet selling it is only enough to fuel a single night of drinking beer. And ok, this seems like a *very* persnickety complaint, but it points to a repeated element in the story that things are extremely cartoony and that there is never any consistent idea of value, world-systems, or meaningful stakes/reality. This is a problem since so much of the book tries to be about money and economics, but due to the lack of specificity/consistency it instead just ends up gesturing at these ideas. And this narrative "floatyness" is even more of a problem later on in the book, where the author tries to make things more gritty and more serious. The cartoonishness of the world makes these later attempts at pathos and tragedy just fall flat on their metaphorical faces. Contrast this with _The Name of the Wind_, which consistently uses money and prices to ground the world and give an idea of how its systems/relations work. When done right, prices are a great and underused technique to convey a fantasy world to a plutocratic reader. Or contrast this with _Soon I Will be Invincible_, which takes super heroes and makes it serious, but can only do so because it is grounded from the very beginning of the novel (well, and also because it's writer has more skill).
And then there's the attempted comedy. The comedy is not all bad, but there are parts of it which should never have made it into the book. The worst offenders: cribbing off the Monty Python and the Holy Grail bit about the killer rabbit. Referencing Leeroy Jenkins. The name of the Orcish holy relics, which when pronounced phonetically are "oh my gerd". These are all terrible. There are many, many other parts which are not terrible, but aren't precisely funny either. On average it's a flabby comedy, and it should have been tightened up/edited. To be fair, there are several bits which I did genuinely enjoy: the dialog with the high level *redacted* which they fight in the tower, and the consistent annoyance of the 2 main schools of magic with the third gray school. I also liked bits of the world building, like how when different fantasy races interbreed they tend towards human, and how elves are immortal but their slowly shifting memories effectively turn them into different people over the decades and centuries.
So! That's the book. Its glowing reviews on Amazon are entirely wrong, and are more reflective of its low quality readership than any high quality writing.
Pompeii, by Robert Harris
An acceptable and semi-educational thriller set in ancient Roman times, in the few days immediately before the Vesuvius eruption. The surprising strength of the novel comes from the focus on the system of aqueducts that interlaced the region. The main PoV character is a Roman aqueduct engineer, and the story follows him as he follows the disruptions in the water supply that precede the eruption. This aspect of the novel was very well done, and delves into the various reservoirs, stations, pipelines, building materials, fittings, human resources, and methods of operation for the aqueduct system. The whole system is neat and fiddly and beautiful when in motion, and I feel like it could be its own genre of games, just like the various _Trains_ franchises that dot board gaming and computer gaming (actually, wait, Banks might have already done this in Hydrogen Sonata. I forget). The first half of the novel is built around this water system, as the engineer Attilus reasons back from the sudden water supply problems to what might have gone wrong in the system and how to fix it. This would have been a fine technical drama in its own right since the aqueducts are the only water supply for the 200,000+ people in the area, and if the water is disabled for more than ~48 hours absolutely everything will go to ruin. There are a couple of other elements to the story, e.g. a mystery about what happened to the previous head engineer, labor issues, corrupt and cruel local officials, a love interest, etc. But I feel like these elements are mostly there to spice up the more educational/technical parts of the novel.
Then of course there is the second half of the novel where Vesuvius actually erupts. This part is ok? It has a similar structure to the first half of the novel, in that it has some human drama set on top of a thorough exploration of a segment of history. Where the first half went into detail about the aqueducts, the second half reconstructs the several days of the Vesuvius eruption. Assuming that the novel is not just flat out lying to me, I thought this was part was interesting (if not quite as compelling as the aqueduct parts). I'd always envisioned Vesuvius as a sudden blast and then rapid, fiery, death and entombment. Instead there was a full ~24 hour period where the region was being pelted by light pumice stone, basically a heavy and never ending hail storm. People could and did escape Pompeii during this time; nearly everyone who died there did so as a result of this is fine dog. The end came for the city as a result of the second stage of the eruption, when arcs of superheated gas and ash started rolling down the mountain. Due to the vagaries of wind and geology, there were cities on the other sides of the mountain which escaped destruction and more-or-less survived the eruption. Pompeii of course caught one of these waves directly, causing its complete destruction.
Anyway! I liked much of the historical subject matter, and the remainder was perfectly serviceable.
In the Valley of the Kings, by Terrence Holt
Another re-read, although this time the stories didn't hold up as well. My reaction to several of the short stories changed, with some aging poorly while others I appreciated more. This isn't too surprising, the stories are basically poetry, and your mood has a lot to do whether you find it enchanting or trite. _Apocalypse_ was the stand out of the bunch; it's basically _The Last Policeman_ in fast-forward, and was really lovely. The others I enjoyed, though I did not love them as much as the first time. _Eurdyke_ and _Aurura_ were the runts of the litter.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence, by Jack Womack
Another re-read of a childhood favorite. In this case the story held up better (or my body chemistry was better), and I really enjoyed it even though I've read the book ~4 times now. The basic idea is that this is the coming of age story of a bookish, lesbianic, satanic, murderess in a dystopian and collapsing near-future New York. As that list of adjectives implies, the story is completely and 100% extra and I love it for that. The story is told through a diary which tracks the descent of the protagonist and the society around her, through events but also through the changing language of the diary. The future-argot that the author invents has a few moments that flicker between being embarrassing and perfect, but for the most part I liked it and the conceit works far, far better than it could. In the hands of a less talented writer the conceit would have simply ruined the book. I don't have a ton of patience for invented languages and dialects, but this one I enjoyed, perhaps because it is introduced slowly, or perhaps because it takes English and radically simplifies it in some ways rather than making it more baroque and difficult to parse. And it is a neat phenomena that you can read a random passage near the end of the book and not really like/appreciate it, but if you read the entire book through from the beginning and let your mind soak in the argot then the later passage reads far more clearly/evocatively. Ok, the hard part of the review is over. Now, in case you can't get a copy of this book yourself (Jack Womack is criminally under-published), here are the 3 best phrases of the book, little bits of world building thrown in along the way:
Operation Domestic Storm
No Justice - No Mercy
It's a simple formula but I am a simple person.
A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch
"The muscles of her nose contracted." What other author would write a sentence like that? None, that's who. When she wants to Iris gets crazily and wonderfully and clinically precise in drawing her characters. Also a good book in other ways, though not feeling it quite as much as I did when I first read it.
The Lifespan of a Fact
Despite the shortness of the book it never really grabbed me. The main author was offputting; after years of reading _Harpers_ I'm allergic to his style of writing and it was only a few sentences in before I was annoyed with him. And then the fact checker seemed *really* obsessive compulsive in a non-healthy or useful way about many of statements that came up. This might work better as a sit-com, but as a written conflict between two people who have entirely different ways of interacting with the world it was grating. It's basically reading 60 pages of passive aggressive emails from someone's work place.
The Dragon's Path:
Despite the generic title and forgettable cover art, this is actually a fairly high quality fantasy book. It's kind of what you would get if you took Game of Thrones, but turned everything down by 30%-40%. The events are dangerous and occasionally grim, but not too much so. The politics are interesting and semi-complex, but not to the point that you need a wikipedia page to figure out the lines of politics and succession. The writing is enjoyable and crunchy, and not quite so embroidered and elaborate as to describe every meal at the feast. It's also a very quick read; if I had not needed to pack for a trip it could have easily been a one day, 500 page excursion. It helps that the book starts off strong, with some action but also with a road trip where 90% of the people are pretending to belong to professions that they actually know nothing about. It's not a typical start to a fantasy adventure, but I liked it and it helped lead into the rest. The PoV characters are generally fine, but I'd like to particularly commend one of them, Weber, for being like the farce-road trip and not at all the typical fare for a fantasy epic. He's a character where for long periods I was genuinely unsure about where he was going/becoming. Other positive qualities: there is fighting, but probably not more than once per 100 pages, and even then it tends to be a brief and self contained thing. There are also a bunch of animal themed fantasy races (the author mentions in the afterward that he is a *huge* furry), but as with the title this works far better than you would expect. In summary, this isn't a genius work of fantasy, but it is one where things are consistently better/more interesting than you would expect, and where many of the common irritants of the genre are not present.
A Room with a View
The fabled missing link between Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch. The first 30 pages of this book did nothing for me, being set amidst year ~1900 English people, which are the worst. There is the smallness of thought, the constraint of long dead conventions, and just a generalized squalor of mind and body and housing and food and weather. But! After ~30 pages the novel emerges from this gray morass and starts to shine steadily brighter. The characters are fleshed out with greater detail and precision, revealing new facets of their personality and history. An infusion of new and more lively people joins the social graph. There is a magical socialist who plays an ever larger role, breaking people out of their shells and arguing against narrow convention, there are streams and glades, sunlight and flowers and unexpected kisses, there are people comedically stumbling upon other people naked. There is comedy, delusion, hypocrisy, and an argument for kindness. In short, it represents a transition point between Austen's world and the more fevered and modern and multi-aspected and accurate one of Murdoch. It's still very much a simple and partial prototype, not something as undeniably correct and graceful as what Murdoch creates, but all the basic parts are there. Oh, and the chapter names and character names are a treat.
Brave Story is like the Thomas Covenant books, but you know, for kids! It is a slow but ultimately likeable adventure about a Japanese school boy pulled into a fantastical world of strange creatures and magic. The basic idea is common enough in manga that has its own sub-genre, (Iseki?) but sure, one more never hurts.
The story is told simply but well. The protagonist is a good kid who plays a lot of video games and just generally wants to do what is right in any given situation. And the fantasy world he is pulled into is in part a reflection of his own mind and experiences, so there are challenges and dangers but nothing beyond what you would see in Final Fantasy III or the like. I thought it was enjoyably non-edgy, just a sort of warm and interesting novelization of a JRPG adventure. Really the scariest part of the book was the first 250 pages set in the real world, where the kid's parents are going through a fairly brutal divorce. And despite the over all simplicity of the plot and structure and characters, I did reliably enjoy the actual descriptions of the scenes. It's not a terrible book for a long relaxing easy read.
A Short History of Everything
A warm, interesting, and occasionally misguided general science book that I wish had been published 15 years later. The topics vary widely; the author basically went to 200 scientists and asked each of them to talk about the most interesting facts and historical anecdotes in their field. It works well. You learn about Hubble's track and field dominance, about a savant who could look at 1000-star fields and instantly spot the new star created by a super nova, and about a conniving and villainous 18th century dissectionist who started a nice museum in his retirement. There was some new scientific information in here for me too. I didn't realize how completely enclosed the earth was during its greatest ice ages (very, even oceans completely frozen over), and I hadn't followed the theories on why the Cambrian Explosion happened (probably wasn't an actual explosion, probably a result that creatures need to be a certain size to be fossilized, and creatures started reaching that size. So not necessarily more varied creatures, rather just larger creatures that would actually show up in the fossil record), and how the various pre-humans spread out of Africa (not so much in eliminationist waves, more likely from inter-breeding and inter-region breeding). The general guiding theme of the chapters is to cover all the bits of info and history and chance needed for humans to occur on earth, from the astronomical, to the atomical, to the geological, to the biological, climatological, etical, etical.
There are some minor annoyances with the book, e.g. he will write things like a million million million rather than E18. Also he starts the book off with the view of "how neatly the pothole fits us, the puddle!", rather than "the puddle fits the pothole, because the pothole created the puddle". That quibble made me a bit slow to get into the book, but he drops it after the introductory chapters. And then one final issue/ask was that I wish the book was more recent, so that I could be positive I was not making a fool of myself when I mention his info at cocktail parties. Overall this is a very readable general science book with a nice theme and easily digestible, ~30 page chapters.
Ok, and a few more bits:
Horses nearly went extinct! We came that close to never having ponies.
It's mildly surprising how many scientists only changed their minds by dying.
It took a really, really long time for bacteria to oxygenate the atmosphere. And now you're wasting it. :P :D