Cradle, books 1-11 Rothdas book review RSS
2.0 Stars

Naruto + LitRPG. Serviceable. It takes ~10 books or so but eventually it starts to get fairly good.

2.0 Stars

A semi-acceptable book so long as you skip over every attempt at characterization and conversation, and just read the parts about sci-fi world building & orbital conflict. Has decent answers as to why aliens are advanced enough to travel to our solar system, but can still be fought by contemporary human technology.

Excession, by Banks
5.0 Stars

Still a banger. Not even one of my favorite Culture books (I thought the text conversations between Minds dragged, as did a lot of the scenes on the Sleeper Service), and yet still enjoyable, entrancing. Banks is such an articulate young man, and I forget that when I haven't read his stuff for a while. There's just this quality of skill and intelligence that shines through in all of his writing.

Pariah, Penitent, by Dan Abnett
3.0 Stars

Two perfectly acceptable WH40K books. The author occasionally goes into "tell, not show" mode where he elaborates at length on the themes of the book that we're already very well aware of, but otherwise this is a fine, slow, gothic, spy-story unfurling on a backwater Imperium planet.

Name of the Wind, Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss
5.0 Stars

Re-reading these with the benefit of 10 more years of wisdom, I have to say that they are both still bangers. Two notes:

One early interpretation of the books that I had was "wizard school harem", which is indeed a very strong foundation upon which to build a novel. But really the author goes further than that, and makes just about every character in the books friendly and "neat", with their own unique and interesting thing going on. You want the main character to spend lots of time with basically all of these characters, and it is sad that we and the characters exist in linear time and can only go down a single path. E.g. the appeal of the book is not just Auri the MPDG, or Fela the well put together, or shadowed Denna, or ruthless but loveable Devi, it's also austere & intellectual Lorren, wild Eolin, musical Stanchion, and the manufactory bear-genius Kilvin. These are all great characters, and you'd like to see the MC spend a lifetime working alongside each of them. It's a good way to orient a novel; rather than going down the Game-Of-Thrones or Joe-Abercombie route of having none of the characters be likeable, instead have nearly every character be likeable in their own way.

Which ties into the second point, which has been oft repeated/thought by me, that a lot of people miss out on a lot of what this book is trying to do. The world in these books is nice! It's a world that, barring a few long running problems, is humming along smoothly. It's not a series where there is a Dark Lord, or a dire prophecy, or an encroaching shadow, or whatever ticking down that the heroes have to stop. It's just a world that is doing its thing and maybe slowly developing and getting better. So instead of this big external threat, basically all of the problems & drama in these books come from ... the main character. Specifically, the main character of this fantasy novel acts like the hero of a fantasy novel, thus causing basically every issue in his own life (ok, barring the parents, but otherwise this is true). In some ways it's an anti-fantasy novel? But like anti-war creators have found out, it is difficult to make an anti-war story if you in anyway focus the lens on the actual war. In a similar way, the anti-fantasy novel aspects of this book are undercut by the author making a really enjoyable fantasy novel.

Anyway! Great stuff, would like to see more of it, but unfortunately the Chandrian killed the author for telling the wrong kind of tales.

Personal interest note: Early on in book #1, Kvothe meets a charity worker who has difficulty getting around and walks gingerly, and Kvothe diagnosis' the worker as having circulation issues which in turn caused issues with the extremities. Thank you! Early in my 30's I went to *multiple* modern doctors with this same issue, and they were completely useless/baffled by these symptoms. I eventually figured it out via internet articles and lived experience with different exercise & diet choices, but it was neat to see Kvothe/the author being aware of the same issues.

Heathern, Ambient, by Jack Womack
3.0 Stars

Two more Womack books, both set deep in his dystopian DryCo universe. This turns out to be a problem, since it's not a very enjoyable universe. Previous to this I'd read *Random Acts of Senseless Violence*, which leads into the DryCo setting, and *Terraplane*, which uses that setting as a bookend for adventures in other spaces. One of the reasons these previous books worked is that they just touch upon the DryCo setting, rather than wallowing in it. It's difficult to make a hellish setting interesting/readable for any length of time, but that is the task that Womack sets up for himself in Heathern and Ambient.

So, more about the setting. It's a sort of post-Jackpot, where the surviving 2 billion live in a strange combination of Idiocracy, 1984, and libertarian heaven. Human life is nearly worthless, and the demographics have reverted to medieval levels where a large fraction of the population is less than 20 years old. It is a society that is deeply death-seeking and that is constantly tearing at itself in myriad ways. For the reader, at times this comes off as cartoonish, at other times affecting, at other times as just very unpleasant. Both of the books are set at the top echelons of DryCo, the company that runs the Western world. In Hearthern, the executives try to tame a Gnostic messiah that has come to the world. A lot of people die. In Ambient, there is a power struggle between the founder of DryCo and his son. A lot of people die. In between, there are roller-derby death matches to determine & finalize corporate mergers, an Elvis cult, the founder of DryCo and his Friedman-esque continual chaining of sayings and metaphors, malformed and super-intelligent mutants that follow the teachings of the new Gnostic Messiah, and the lyrical and oblique speech of the mutants. Of the two books I prefer Ambient, though it does have the downside of introducing like 4 new major ideas and themes in its last 20 pages. Too much, too much. Shot through both books is both the author's brilliant writing and a continual, intelligent, and extreme cruelty towards its characters. You could argue that the cruelty is a midnight-black satire of trends in America, but at a certain point you have to ask if the author is satirizing the stupidity and cruelty or just getting off on them. I'd have difficulty recommending the books to anyone even if parts of both books are beautiful. It *does* make me understand why Womack never achieved any mainstream success with this books, despite their quality and the great recommendations that he gets from famous sci-fi authors.

Neat random bits: learning that the occasionally referenced "mollies" are Molotov cocktails, learning the reason Jake wears white suits, the religious testifying of the mutants, and the fate of 2 of the characters from Senseless Violence. Oh right and Ambient, written in 1997, has as a plot point the "Q Papers", a series of ancient and long hidden documents that completely upend Christianity. Coincidence?

The Maze of the Enchanter, by Clark Ashton Smith
4.0 Stars

A collection of inventive and beautifully written Weird Tales from the early 1900's. The stories are short & don't overstay their welcome, and tend to be more inventive in the details than in the overall plotting. Also markedly less racist than much of the contemporary writing.

Collision with the Infinite, by Segal
3.0 Stars

This was one the books mentioned by Ligotti in his survey of anti-self literature. It is the personal account of Suzanne Segal, noted void monk, as she talks about both her early life and her life after losing her sense of personhood. In brief: as a youngster Segal practiced transcendental meditation under different guru's and had plentiful ventures into otherspace. She abandoned this meditation in her late 20's. Several years later, after settling down and getting married and getting pregnant, she was stepping onto a city bus when her sense of "self" disappeared from one moment to the next. She went through a months long phase of being an "observer", watching "herself" from over her shoulder as she carried out her actions. Later on even that sense of observerhood would disappear and for many years she was in a paradoxical state of having no self, of observing herself without an observer, a sort of experiential view from nowhere as she viewed and recorded the actions and emotions of someone that she was not. To give you an idea of the weirdness of this state, where a person might normally write "I opened my eyes after waking up" she would instead write "the eyes opened". Finally, at age 42, she became badly ill and on testing an aggressive brain tumor was discovered. Within months she was dead.

So, a couple of notes. Note #1 is that Segal was ill-served by many of the people in her life. The spiritual gurus she interacted with were all scumbags. The Western psychologists she went to for help also failed her, and were unable to identify what seems to be a fairly clear and literal case of depersonalization, i.e. the patient came up and told them "I can no longer recognize myself as a person". This was 40 years ago and psychiatry was not as advanced, but still, they should not have all been so completely useless to her. If at some point one of them would have told her "hey, your brain is having hiccups, lets pop you in a X-ray or MRI machine and maybe we will find a tumor that is tripping you up", then it is entirely possible that Segal would still be alive today. Instead the brain tumor was just allowed to progress for ~12 years. Oh, and then her husband, being French, completely failed to try and understand her or help her when the depersonalization came on. She was no longer filling the wife role she was scripted for, and so she was fired.

Note #2 is that I feel cheated, as the narrative failed to really dig into the particular aspect of her experience that I was interested in, the experience of moment to moment decision making within this condition. E.g. how does an action come about, say eating ice cream? Is it just something that she observes happening? Does she feel/observe hunger or anticipation or something pleasant to look forward too? I really would have loved just an in depth, 30 page long examination of how basic actions and decision occur. At several points in the book, both before and after depersonalization, she describes making life decisions because it seemed "obvious". Is life like that for her, a continual series of obvious choices? Unclear. So the one bit of info I was reading the book for, I did not find.

Note #3 is a moderately positive one. Ligotti and to a certain extent Segal say (this is very much paraphrasing), that the self is an illusion. Yet her experience seems to indicate that the self is at least a load-bearing illusion, and that its lack results in very noticeable effects. For Segal this experience of lack-of-self caused continual terror, trembling, anxiety, and exhaustion. True, later on she becomes calmer as she understands her situation better, but even then there were definite effects. You could easily posit a different situation, where her sense of self disappeared in the same way, but she just continued on in precisely the same life-track as before. She could have become a p-zombie with no one being the wiser, with no terrors, no divorces, no books being written. The fact that the disappearance of self was a life changing event argues that it fills at least some role in the ecosystem of the mind.

Oh right! and Note #4, she refers in the end to her altered and unmediated? remediated? perception of reality/the universe as "the Vastness". What a great phrase!

The Jakarta Method, by Bevins
5.0 Stars

Kansas, the root of all evil. Alt-text: "are we the baddies?"

A study of the cultivation and spread of anti-leftist mass murder in the third world in the 50's - 70's. In many ways this is a companion piece to Legacy of Ashes, where Legacy is US-centric and views events through the lens of the CIA, while Jakarta is Third World centric and views events through the lens of people who were affected by this violence. They are both excellent books, but this one has the advantage of being simpler? more innocent? and manages to at least partially separate itself from cultural preconceptions and achieve a "this is an alien describing earth society" viewpoint. It's also briefer than Legacy, and I think it is a great history book for understanding what exactly is meant by terms like imperialism and neo-colonialism, and how large chunks of the world transitioned from the post-WWII world to our current world. The short summary of the book is that America's initial anti-Communist efforts were spearheaded by the CIA, and were often unsuccessful or had enormous blow back. Later on, we transitioned from acting more or less directly, to instead nurturing & funding hard-right elements in the target nations, and letting them do the desired work in a more organic and home-grown fashion.

Other deets:
-Leavenworth, Kansas, where the US gathered and nurtured Alex Jones types from all over the world before sending them back out to organize and commit mass murder. It was the School of the Americas before the School of the Americas.
-It turns out the Secret Service is usually the agency responsible for supplying foreign dignitaries with prostitutes. Which makes some of the Secret Services more recent scandals less surprising (I mean the sex scandals, not the coup scandals).
- It's jarring to see so many names starting with "Bal-", since 99.9% of the time when I see that prefix it is as part of my Metafilter handle. :D But it turns out to be a common way to begin a name in Indonesia.
- Some insightful letters between Mao and the peaceful democratic-socialist party of Indonesia. He's trying to break it to them as gently as possible that they need to arm up or else the right wingers will kill you. Other people make the point more directly later, that the

Barn 8, by Unferth
4.0 Stars

Iowa, the death of hope

Delightful. The book completely charmed me within the first 20 pages. Since there's great stuff even at the very beginning of the book, I don't want to spoil anything by going into too much detail of the plot. Instead I'll just say that it's about a cast of yearning, misfit, animal rights activists who decided to do something. The book does a great job of creating a group of characters who are all unique and lovely in their own way and own light. I would give the book 5 stars, except that it kept adding new characters (who are fine!), rather than focusing on the initial characters that I'd already fallen in love with. Anyway. It's short, it's fast, and it's one of the most cheerful and enjoyable books about factory farming and environmental collapse that you will read this year.

The Good Shepherd, by CS Forester
3.0 Stars

Nobody is impressed. We've all spent 48 hours playing a video game before.

A weird little book. This is an account of a fictional naval battle, as the straight-laced commander of a destroyer group & convoy are under prolonged attack by German submarines. The 2 elements that immediately stand out are A) the war story, which is good, and makes for a propulsive middle half of the book and B) the commander's immersion in Christianity, to the point where he's constantly bible-quoting to himself about the most minor of things. I haven't read any other books by CS Forester, so I don't really have him calibrated and wasn't entirely sure in what light this was intended, but it seems like this meant in a positive light? In any case, the real and hidden draw of this book & half the reason I looked it up is the time-management/shift change logistics. The US Navy apparently subscribed (subscribes?) to the same philosophy as US doctors, that it is right and proper for the head captain/doctor to stay on shift for absurd lengths of time with only the smallest sleep breaks in between. And as a programmer you can only look on this with horrified fascination. There's been countless studies in various CS departments about how mental function inexorably declines with lack of sleep & overwork, and how past around ~45 hours per week the gains from increased work are overtaken by the losses from increased error rates, with the conclusion that it is simply counterproductive to work past that many hours for any extended length of time. And then you go to these absolutely vital fields like medical science, where any mistake could cripple someone their life, and the common practice is to work doctors/nurses for ~18 hour shifts for 100 hours per week. As I said, it seems horrifyingly maladjusted. And for their part doctors seem to be fine with this, partly from tradition & their own hazing, partly from the fact that being mentally impaired dulls the very senses that you would need to detect impairment (e.g. people who think they drive better while drunk), and I think partly because their job is at least somewhat physical, which might further mask to them the degradation of their mental faculties. Anyway! The navy follows this same philosophy, and has the same captain in charge of the battle for the full 48 hours without any meaningful breaks. So a larger and larger aspect of the story is the Captain becoming both utterly exhausted and utterly absorbed in this task. Sometimes this drives out bodily realities, other times these physical needs come crashing back with vividness. Again, we've all been there after a gaming bender. So this was the 3rd element of the book for me, thinking about ways this could have been avoided, and what sort of duplicate/triplicate commander system you would need and with what sort of shadowing and hand offs, so that the commander of the fleet/ship could take sleep breaks and not just be completely blasted out of his mind by hour #28 of the battle. It seems doable; you have plenty of other officers & men there, there's no reason they can't be trained up in this decision making while on the job. And the task of convoy-defense is relatively "local", i.e. you are not executing on a long-term plan, rather most of the decision making consists of reasonable responses/procedures to incoming reports. So in that sense it could be handed off with less overhead. Anyway! The US Navy apparently still has a massive problem with sleep deficits, to the point where their officers regularly ram ~$20 billion dollar warships into the sides of cargo vessels. Save a cargo container, take a nap!

Oh right and the book is meant as a metaphor of some sort. I am 90% sure of that.

Shards of Earth
4.0 Stars

A fast paced & inventive space opera adventure. It reads a bit like a like a one of the more modern and wild sci-fi RPGs, where you have various ships, aliens, human-alien hybrids, hive-minds, cyborgs, alien-cyborgs, psychics, trans-humans, trans-aliens, gangsters, lawyers, boyars, and tyrannical hierophantical whelks scrabbling with and against each other at the edges of known space. Or here's another angle: it's a bit like Stephen Donaldson's *The Gap* series, except with only 10% as many content warnings and more variety & color & friendliness. Not exactly Iain M. Banks, but also very easy to read in 1 or 2 days.

City of Saints and Madmen, Vandermeer
2.0 Stars

A much, much, much ... much, much lesser Vandermeer. This is one of his earlier works, where he decided he wanted to create his own version of Perdido Street Station/Etched City/Viriconium and fully realize the life and history of the fantastic city of Ambergris. It doesn't work. This is mostly due a combination of slowness and triteness.

The book is broken up into a number of novella length stories, where each story changes the genre/time period/perspective on the city. So you have the story of a shattered priest returning to the city after failed missionary work, you have a highly parenthetical popular history of the city's founding, you have a key moment in the lives of several famous artists in the city's modern period, you have a meta-text with the author in a psych ward because the city became too real for him, etc. etc. And there are numerous links between the stories, e.g. the popular history has a brief mention of the lasting psychoactive effects of the jungle-poison on the dart that the priest was pierced with, e.g. the famous artists (Voss, Lake) are mentioned in almost all other stories, etc. etc

The problem is that the quality of the work is not sufficient to keep the reader's interest. The world building is often ... bleh. It's not fan-fic level, but it is also not creative enough or original enough or beautiful enough to justify itself. Instead it's just this long slog through mediocre world building & nice but also quite slow storytelling. And there are easter eggs and cross references and sub-texts and subversions there for you to find, except that if you do not care about the work to begin with these rewards are not very rewarding. As an example, let's dig into the story of the artists (which is one of the better ones). The main thread of the story is about an artist who makes mediocre art and is perhaps wasting his talent, he has a big dramatic traumatic experience, and then after that experience he makes good art. As plot goes, this is trite & unrealistic. The second thread of the story is about an art historian writing about the artist's paintings during this time, and getting things wrong in a confidently bullshitty way. This has also been done before, many times, since artists love to turn their art on the critics who criticize them. It's a super common sub-genre, and often quite cutting and hilarious. And this story-thread is just a mediocre example of that sub-genre. At most it gets some gentle chuckles. The novella isn't worthless, some of the physical descriptions and scenes are excellent, but that quality alone isn't enough to support the novella. If the art-history thread had been dropped, then the pace of the story doubles, and that might have worked fine. As is though the book is too slow, and the shifts in perspective regularly kill any momentum that the reader has managed to build up.

Anyway! I quit around the 300 page mark, as I couldn't deal with another psychiatric hospital scene where it seems like the hospitalized person is insane, or are they?! Perhaps my favorite thing of the whole book was the (apparently) real life talk about Vandermeer's own personal experience with a hummingbird as a symbol of piercing and awakening beauty, which he would later expand into his Hummingbird Salamander. Neat.

I'm not sure how to rate this book, as it's not offensive or incompetent, but I also can't think of any situation in which I would recommend it to someone. I'm going to call that "2 stars" in recognition of Vandermeer's past services.

The Conspiracy against the Human Race, by Thomas Ligotti
3.0 Stars

I am a meat popsicle

Reading this book reminded me of the old joke about two mid-westerners who meet and start chatting. They happily realize that they are both Protestants, they chat more and realize they are both Baptists, they chat more & more and follow down the pathways of schism and reform, realizing they both belong to the exact same minuscule branch of their religion... up until the very last branch where it turns out one belongs to the Reformation of 1879 while the other belongs to the Reformation of 1915. They then turn on each other as bitter enemies.

Which is to say that I agree with a lot of what Ligotti writes, and it is only at the last steps that I have strong disagreements with him. Being is consciousness? Check. Our material substrate is inevitably decaying towards pain and death? Check. Our conception of a unitary and self-directing personhood is largely illusory? Check. Our reasoning is strongly psychologically motivated? Check. Life endlessly feasts on itself, a continuous brutal process played out in a thin scum across the surface of a tiny rock in an infinite and meaningless void? Obviously. So we agree on all of these factual points, only to diverge on how to contextualize them, and the proper reaction to them.

So, in more detail, Ligotti's central metaphor for his complaint and for describing humanity's existence is that of the horror-movie puppet, a creature that should not be alive but is alive, a chunk of base matter given an uncanny consciousness. To Ligotti the proper reaction to human consciousness is an unsettled horror, both that there is consciousness housed in matter, and that this consciousness allows us to apprehend the fundamentally negative nature of the world we exist in. So to Ligotti consciousness, a random evolutionary by-product, is a tragic event in the course of our world as it opens up doors of terror and suffering that were previously closed. In his view the proper action would be to re-seal these doors by letting the human race go extinct. To a certain extent he is not wrong in his negative reaction, in the same way that if someone says that cilantro tastes bad to them they are not wrong. It is a subjective statement of taste that you can't really gainsay from the outside. So I fully believe that this is Ligotti's aesthetic reaction to the world, and that there are probably dozens of other people in the world who feel the same way.

And now begins the part where I criticize the book.

First, the metaphor of the horror-movie puppet. Ligotti says that the puppet is horrifying because it is uncanny; I would say that the puppet is horrifying because it will hide under your furniture and then rush out and stab you with a knife. Without the stabbing aspect, the puppet is not half so scary. There are plenty of puppet-figures that we view with affection, e.g. the Nadja-puppet from What we do in the Shadows, Johnny-5 from Short Circuit, and most of the robots from Star Wars and other sci-fi. We are perfectly fine with base matter given life, we just need to know that it is not going to suddenly stab us. Ditto with the other examples Ligotti lists, of actual humans with physical/mental issues that make them behave in weird ways. The scary thing about these conditions is not that they are uncanny, it is that they are uncertain & potentially dangerous, and we are no longer able to read or predict the other person's actions. (Edit: Science backs me up on this! They did an extensive survey, and one of the things that makes clowns so scary is the inability to read their emotional cues,due to their misleading makeup) This make the situation fraught and carries a constant risk of violence, which is half of what makes people scared or anxious when dealing with health issues that cause people to behave abnormally.

Second, the suffering. Ligotti lists suffering as one of the reasons for human extinction, but either I don't understand his moral calculus, or he is personally not doing a good job of achieving a decent suffering-to-pleasure ratio. I think for most people, we consider a certain amount of suffering a reasonable trade for a certain amount of life and pleasure. E.g. say that you were to live as long as you wanted in a beautiful alpine resort, however once every 500 years you would fall while skiing and painfully break your arm. This is a good trade? It seems like a good trade, and that the pain of breaking your arm is outweighed by all the other positive experiences you have. And if you were to look back at a life of 3000 years of alpine vacation, you wouldn't really describe is as a bad or painful life full of arm breaking, but rather an overall pleasant one. You can envision other deals with less favorable exchange ratios, where eventually the ratio would be bad enough that most people would be like "yeah, euthanize me please". But in general, especially in the modern day, especially in the rich West, it seems like we have a pretty good ratio, with at least moderate hopes of it getting better. So this part didn't really land for me, and I did not understand the argument that because some suffering is unavoidable, that therefor life as a whole was not worth it.

Third, depression. Ligotti writes a brief but I think quite astute description of depression, and how the very nature of thought and consciousness and the world is different there than it is in "normal" consciousness. And he uses this as an example of how life is fundamentally negative, if only we could see it. I think the experience of depression is instead a hopeful sign? In that if you can conceive of a second fundamental type of consciousness, where the very ground of existence is altered, why not a third or a fourth or a trillionth type of consciousness? Especially for someone like Ligotti, who dis-enjoys both baseline consciousness and depression consciousness, this understanding that there exists entirely different ground seems like a sign that he should do further exploring and possibly psychonaut his way to greener pastures. In a later section Ligotti dumps on transhumanism as another false hope, but to me that has always been the real appeal of that -ism, that through relatively minor alterations to brain organization we could enable new or more sustained states of consciousness rather than sticking with what evolution seems to have landed us on. (e.g. as one small example, the sustained states of transcendental bliss talked about by Segal in her book)

Fourth, the nature of the world. Ligotti argues for a Schopenhauerian view, that there is "black life" behind all things and animating the world. Ligotti brings this up numerous times, of an unsettling presence behind the curtain, or a hidden nature in the world, of which we receive glimpses but shy away from. To that I would say: bro, it's fine. Yes we feast on ourselves, yes there is an endless web of negative meaning, but the proper response to this understanding is a joy and a peace of knowing yourself to be a part of this vast system, that you are connected to all things through it, that it will consume you just like has consumed countless trillions of others. I've read Christians talking about the comfort of knowing that the liturgy they experience in church is the same one experienced by their parents and their parents before them, going back in an unbroken tradition for hundreds of years. How much more comforting to know that you are part of a tradition going back hundreds of millions of years!

Or for another take, we could go to Nietzsche and one of his criticisms of Christianity (I'm not a Nietzsche scholar, if I have got this completely wrong don't @ me), that Christianity looks at this entire vast creation and human life and human desire, and then stamps its foot and says "no, you are wrong". Charitably, this could be viewed as a delightful degree of chutzpah, less charitably, as a sort of pettish insanity and absurdity and smallness. In the same vein, we could look at Ligotti looking at the world, where he recognizes the vastness behind everything, and he says "ugh, I don't like it." Maybe the problem is with you dude, maybe *you* should work on changing your own mindset. Black life matters.

Oh, while we're on Nietzsche, Ligotti does have a very funny if not entirely accurate chapter on him. Ligotti does seem to misunderstand eternal re-occurrence, it's supposed to be a thought experiment or mental exercise, not a statement of actual fact. I've seen this confusion in a lot of other places, hopefully that doesn't just mean that I am misundestanding it.

And finally, to conclude the complaining, let me just toss out a grab-bag of other issues, e.g. the book is in many ways a complete mess, as it is this weird combination of philosophical screed + survey of related philosophical writing + survey of weird fiction. It doesn't so much make a continued and developed philosophical argument as it does collect a variety of related and highly opinionated thoughts that the author has had and then sort of list these thoughts out one by one. The language and reasoning is often extremely sloppy, and it often wobbles quite close to the line of "too edgy and cringy to read".

Still! Despite everything above, and despite disagreeing with huge chunks of the book, I do have a fundamental affection for it. While I disagree with the final take, the book still gets right things that 99% of books simply don't. And some of its references (e.g. Segal, Zapffe, parts of Schopenhauer) seem interesting and worth looking into more. This book could have been better, but it also could have been much, much worse.
From one of Ligotti's boardgame prototypes

(Edit: oh right, not sure where to put it, but a nice Zapffe bit: "Communism and psychoanalysis, however incommensurable otherwise, both attempt by novel means to vary the old escape anew; applying, respectively violence and guile to make humans biologically fit by ensnaring their critical surplus of cognition. The idea, in either case, is uncannily logical. But again, it cannot yield a final solution. Though a deliberate degeneration to a move viable nadir may certainly save the species in the short run, it will be its nature be unable to find peace in such resignation, or indeed any peace at all..." Interesting stuff, basically arguing that you just need to let these things simmer for a while before you will come around to Ligotti's viewpoint.

Rome trilogy, by Robert Harris
3.0 Stars

A solidly written and occasionally moving but also somewhat awkward series of books.

From one angle, these books are what happens when someone gets a detailed classical education and decides to take the historical info that they learned for their degree & transform it into plot points for their novel. I'm not a Cicero scholar, but I would not be surprised if every single historical fact that is known about the man makes its way into these novels in some form. So this gives the novel some awkwardness, as the story is not driven as much by narrative concerns as it is by the surviving historical record. Does Cicero serve a governship for several years, of which no real records survive? Then the novels skip over those years with just a paragraph or two about how they were not exciting & memorable. Does Cicero try a minor court case over 2 weeks, where records of the court case survive? Great, there's now a 5-20 page section in the novel about that court case. And so on. Another artifact of this method of novel generation is that these books are absolutely *crammed* with plot. There's so much plot. So much. So these novels read differently than most, as they are almost like a transcription of a game of Republic of Rome rather than a story with a definite arc. I am in general a fan of plot & so I mind this extremely plot driven stories less than most, but it does make the novels much more dense than you would expect from the page count.

From another angle, these books are a Hamilton-like story of ambitious man makes good through a combination of intellect, hard work, luck, and marrying into money. Unlike Hamilton though it has almost a horror-story vibe, as the initial rise of the protagonist is mirrored by his eventual fall, and then further fall, as he and his society descend through deeper and deeper levels of violence, chaos, and barbarity. It is kind of a tough read? Like the main character has completely failed & has zero real hope, but there's still another book & 400 more pages to go. In addition to it being a tough read, you could also criticize the book on the grounds that it centered on the absolute elites of Roman society, and that while Cicero is bemoaning the increasing lawlessness & violence around him, he is eliding the fact that every other aspect of his society is already built & maintained by enormous levels of violence. E.g. the massive wealth inequality between citizens, the ubiquitous slavery of non-citizens, and the utter rapacity towards conquered and foreign territories that allows the center to maintain its standard of living. The author isn't blind to this; he does tell the story through the words of Cicero's private secretary & slave, and it does mention Cicero's own briberies and corruptions as well as the atrocities committed by various other Roman figures. And yes, Lawful Evil is probably a better way to run a society than pure Chaotic Evil, and yes small bubbles of law existing is better than no law at all. But still, the story is not so much "The fall of the noble Republic" as it is "society converting from 95% brutality to 98% brutality". It is not quite as effective as it might otherwise be. Doubly so since so many of the new problems in the story are the result of old entrenched evils within the Republic, e.g. you have the Roman Senate who absolutely refuses to make any concessions to starving citizens, or to give up any land to the soldiers who have spent 20 years fighting their wars. And since the Senate/oligarchy will not make concessions due to their unyielding and inflexible greed, ambitious generals and future dictators are left to claim these low-hanging fruits. Oh right, another downer, you don't have to read too hard to find parallels to our own time. These books were written in 2006 & by a British guy, so they don't have any direct references to US politics except for some extremely dry and gentle jabs at the War on Terror. But there's plenty of less direct inferences to be read. Where's our student loan forgiveness, Biden? Hmmm? Hmmm?

So, that has been a lot of criticisms. The thing is, while many of Harris' stories have macro level problems, at the level of sentence-to-sentence and scene-to-scene he's quite a skilled writer. He consistently has well written & well described characters that you care about doing interesting things. So in many ways these books are an easy, if slow, read. Also, the fish ponds. So many wonderful fish & eel ponds. All I really want after reading these books is a pool of giant fat eels bedecked in gold jewelry.
(interesting factoid from the book: the Roman's made explicit what we only imply, and require a Senator to show proof of ungodly wealth before they could be admitted to the Senate)

Fatherland, by Robert Harris
3.0 Stars

A well written noir mystery that is at least partially undermined by its larger themes & world building. First the good: Robert Harris is an extremely solid mystery writer. The book is fast to read, characters are well described, and actions & motivations make sense. He is a "fair" writer, where the reader is given all of the information to understand and reason about the mystery. In particular I would single out a scene about 40% of the way through the book, where the main detective's boss's boss's boss calls the protagonist in for a quick interview about the case. And the main detective quickly lays out the evidence so far & his theories about what is going on, drawing in a number of clues & actions that have been mentioned but not really highlighted in the narrative. And it's all just very solid reasoning and deduction, where everything the main character is saying is stuff that an intelligent and professional investigator could reasonably notice and elucidate. It's just a very well written & plotted scene, in a book that is full of them. For the most part the entire book is like that, and it stands up well relative to other mystery novels.

Now to the world building. The premise of the book is that Germany partially won WWII before exhaustion & the advent of nuclear weapons forced the surviving countries into a negotiated peace. After that point Germany essentially takes the place of the Soviet Union in our timeline, so that 20 years after the war the United States and Germany are in a nuclear-enforced Cold War. And during the events of the book, relations are gradually thawing to the point of detente, and people on the diplomatic side of things have no interest in fresh atrocities being uncovered that could derail the diplomatic overtures.

Ok, that is in the book. In the real world, scholarship/propaganda around the war went through several phases. During the war Soviet atrocities were downplayed in the West since they were our allies, and then after the war the situation was reversed as Germany become our ally and the Soviets our adversary. So for that whole period Soviet atrocities were highlighted, while at least some of the German crimes were covered up. And then, finally, in the 90s, both of these countries were open & neither of them were our adversary, and so we get the fullest and most complete picture of the last 70 years. The problem is that the book was written before this final stage of scholarship, and so its understanding of the war is at least partially incomplete. In particular, the book doesn't really grapple with the full scale of Nazi Germany's crimes, e.g. they were trying to genocide not just the Jewish people but *everyone* in the Soviet Union, and Germany's strategic decisions during the war only made sense in the context of that goal. But in the book Germany has defeated Russia, and there's still tens of millions of Russians running around and causing problems as resistance fighters. And so you get this weird sort of twinning effect, where people in the book are interested in manipulating the news/scholarship/education to serve their political/diplomatic ends, but the author and the book itself is shaped by these same efforts going on in real life.

Anyway! This all just to say that the book suffers from at least a partially unsatisfactory treatment of its fictional world. It doesn't achieve what The Man in the High Castle did, and is instead a good mystery story tied to a middling setting.

I Grow Half Sick of Shadows, Flavia de Luce book #3
3.0 Stars

A fine but not inspired murder mystery. The main character does not actually solve anything, and instead just sort of wanders into a room at the wrong time and causes the murderer to reveal themself. I liked the gothness of the setting, and I liked some of the bits of character interplay & description. There's all sorts of deeper backstory in the setting, and a little bit more of that gets uncovered, but there's nothing really intrinsically interesting in this mystery plot.

The Power
2.0 Stars

A book about how women are too emotional to be entrusted with power.

Overall not that great. It reminded me of World War Z, where the formula was [national stereotype + zombies]. Here the formula is [stereotyped gender interaction + gender flipped]. The writing is fine, but for so many parts of the book I would read a few sentences, and then go "oh, right, got it, I understand what the rest of this section is supposed to be." Which is a shame, because the writer is better than that, and the parts of the book that were not the uninspired gender-flips were often fun and creative. The author has some interesting story threads in there: there's a The Stand type spiritual manipulation towards apocalypse, there's a British family crime drama like Down Terrace, there's at least a little Sanderson type exploration of how society would change with minor magic powers. These would all work much better if they were not weighed down by re-occurring slogs through uninspired rule 63 territory.

Edit 1: Actually, wait, after another day at the pool, another thoughts. A) Why does no one in this book ever use their electricity powers to kill a mosquito or a wasp? A definite oversight in the world building. B) on a related note, I think the author does a fair amount of damage to her world building by trying to squeeze everything into this gender-flip template. So much damage. I think a better book would engage in more precise thinking rather than running everything off of this one, constant, simple conceit. C) I think that this book thinks of itself as feminist, but really the message of the book is "someone will always be holding the whip; woe to the conquered". This is perhaps not the best message if you are trying to promote equality.

Blossom Culp, books 1-4
4.0 Stars

Like the Name of the Wind, but for kids. Follows the adventures of Blossom Culp, a poor & unpopular girl in 1914 rural America, as she uses a combination of wit, deception, and magic to gain a place for herself in a town where established families and established money mean everything. Books 3 & 4 are the better ones, and the ones I accidentally started with, but they all read quickly and have a steady mix of humor, patter, minor conflict, time loops, and occasional poignant observation.

The Color of Law
3.0 Stars

Fine? Fine. The book is about the effects of racism in housing in America over the last century, with a focus on the legal & governmental policies that resulted in segregated housing. It is aimed more at the academic or legal reader rather than the general interest reader, and it tends to make its points in exhaustive & minute detail. So even though the book is short, it is also a bit of slog, and many chapters seem like just a simple transform of the citations into verbiage. This would be fine for proving a legal case, but it is perhaps not the most effective format for talking to an interested layman. This is doubly true since I think most of us already know the outlines of these events from general cultural osmosis, and don't necessarily need every point explained in great detail. E.g. we've all seen Lovecraft Country, so we're all familiar with idea of white mobs, abetted by the police, trying to drive out black families that have moved in to a neighborhood.

The things I did learn from the book were not so much about the events themselves, as about the magnitude, directness, & recentness of events:

- E.g. 50 fire bombings, in a single city, in a single month, over attempts to integrate several neighborhoods
- E.g. racist housing policies after WWI, not surprising. Racist housing policies in 1970, much more yikes - E.g. one of the main points of the book is that many these problems emanated from the very top, since FDR's Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages to black people or even to integrated neighborhoods. This in turn made it impossible for them to get mortgages, and led to a whole series of down-stream evils & inequalities in housing.
- E.g. the police/legal system did nothing against vigilante violence; the usual result of the legal system getting involved was to jail or demote anyone attempting integration, and to let rioters, snipers, and bombers off without investigation. Some of those who work forces, and it is very literal & documented in this case

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24