An unusual Le Carre novel. The novel is not really a mystery, since the central conspiracy and murder are both revealed/strongly indicated early on in the novel. And it is not really a thriller either. Many of the "spy" aspects of the story are told post-facto; the story simply moves to a new location/interview, and how it reached that point is only mentioned in passing during the interview. And Justin (the protagonist) is mostly unkillable, since his position in society protects him. Instead the novel is more of a love story, or a grief story, set amidst different varieties of modern corruption and corporate power. The corruption ranges from gray to black; and in forms from the soft evil of the HR drone to the slightly harder evil of the contract killer/torturer. There are a host of different justifications for the corruption, some quite convincing, and even the central, instigating crime of the book is something that takes a few sentences to explain and that many people would be largely ok with. Which I guess is something of its point.
It's also kind of a disspiriting book, even by Le Carre standards. Justin is wealthy, educated, connected, has police allies and a world wide network of friends and family, and even he has difficulty fighting back against the security services. The ending is also kind of a punch in the gut (zing!); I can see why the movie adaptation had to soften it. Reading Le Carre definitely prepares you for the evening news. CIA torture report is released, and the only one prosecuted is a CIA whistleblower? Yep, no surprises there.
In any case, I do always enjoy the character duets that Le Carre sets up. He has wonderful interviews/investigations between a large variety of characters, and the characterization and texture of these interviews is always a pleasure to read.
A. Lincoln: A Biography
A serviceable biography of Abraham Lincoln. I don't think it had a great amount of insight, its analysis of Lincoln's speeches and religion was often uninspiring, and it has a couple of places where it basically says "we don't have any actual information about what happened here, but surely something like this happened based on my active imagination". On the plus side it was readable, and it did add detail/nuance to my views on a couple of aspects of Lincoln's life (e.g. his views on race/slavery, his racial comments during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and his performance at the start of his administration).
A Princess of Mars/Swords of Mars
These were two short adventure stories written by Burroughs around 1915-1930. They are ok, for the time period, maybe? The stories read very quickly, and at times are plot to the exclusion of all else. On these occasions it reads a bit like the wikipedia synopsis of its own story. The Hero is perfect and manly, and he meets massive success in every endeavor with occasional setbacks opening the way for larger successes. The social politics of the story are just moderately to the left of Gor. On the plus side, I enjoyed the weird 1920's diction, the continual stream of new pulp creatures and settings, and the author's penchant for abrupt resolutions. Near the end of both books there are plot developments/complications that most authors would spend 100+ pages resolving. Burroughs is like "Nope, a half page is plenty to wrap this up in. Annddd, done."
A well written, Eastern themed urban fantasy novel that sort of wobbles out of control in the last third of the book. I did enjoy the first two thirds of the book though. The writing is fine, the eastern mythology is new to me in this genre, and there were a number of interesting, amusing, and flavorful characters. Unfortunately, in the last third it has this common urban fantasy problem where they feel the need to either go really big or go really dark or both. Authors, it's ok to just tell small, interesting stories with good characters! But in this case a murder investigation escalates to the threat of a world ending plague, there are a long series of deux ex machinas, and the interesting characters and duos from the first part are all glommed together and have no chance to interact or breathe. Anyway, not a bad book but not a great one either.
An enjoyable set of short stories from Glen Cook, one of my favorite childhood authors. I haven't read anything from Cook for a while, so it was good to see that he holds up. The stories have a variety of settings (modern day, near future, far future, far-far future, some far future planets that for various reasons have to use more primitive tech, and finally some just completely out there fantasy worlds). The common theme to all the stories is betrayal, or at least deeply divided loyalties.
As always, I just enjoy Cook's style and worldview. He's perfectly happy to throw the reader out there, in media res, and explain only ~40% of what is going on in a world. It's a strategy that works well in his sci-fi and fantasy, and lends stories more color than if he bothered to explain everything.
A few notes about some of the particular stories:
- _The Devils Tooth_ and _Winter's Dream_ - I've never actually read Vance, but as I understand it these are very Vancian. These were two of my favorites, as Cook steps out of his usual comfort zones and creates some really alien and age-worn settings.
- _In the Wind_ and _Dragons in the Sky_ - Fine stories, but they're set in Cook's main sci-fi universe, and it seems like they have major spoilers for that series. Not a concern for everyone, but it is for me since I was planning to read that series next.
- _The Recruiter_ - Also set in his sci-fi universe, though not spoilery. Cook's sci-fi universe has some similarities to Scalzi's _Old Man's War_, but it seems like a more realistic take on the idea. Like _Old Man's War_ it assumes that humans are still useful in far-future wars, and that Old Earth is the main population center for humanity. In this take though, rather than bothering to refurbish old entitled white guy's bodies, they just use the planet as a 20 billion person ghetto to draw desperate and impoverished recruits from.
A well written, bloody, sci-fi action novel that is badly flawed by its wing-nut techno-libertarian world-building. It's kind of like _Atlas Shrugged_ crossed with a _A Deepness in the Sky_ crossed with a well-written Halo novel (Do those exist? We will assume they exist.)
So, first the world building. Trigger Warning: if you are a wing-nut libertarian, maybe you shouldn't read the next part. The novel is set ~100 years in the future, where political correctness has run amok. Led by the socialist bureaucrats of the European Union, a repressive World Government has taken over and state power has greatly expanded. As we all know, governments are immensely wasteful, the more so the larger they become. So the world government has ruined everything with its wastefulness, regulations, and mis-allocation of resources. Cash is almost non-existent, and most people subsist on a meager state welfare. The people are forced to use universal healthcare, which is of course a synonym for death panels and suicide booths. Only in a few places outside of the state's cameras can free trade flourish, and in these spots people wise enough to squirrel away gold can purchase the best of the black market. In general, the world is terrible and running out of resources. This is driven in large part by over population, with a world population of 18 billion. (Side note: it turns out that it if you give people half way decent lives and control of their reproductive health, they are happy to limit themselves to ~1.9 children per couple. It's a pattern that has repeated in nearly all of the developed countries. I wish the author could have taken some sustainability courses before using the idiotic word "manswarm" so often.)
Global warming doesn't seem to be a problem at least. Hmm, what else. There are also elements of a sort of reactionary misogyny, tech-CEO worship, and a general dislike of democracy, though those issues are somewhat less in your face than the above.
Whew. So, there is all of that. On the positive side, The Departure is a very competently written action sci-fi. I've read reviews comparing it to a sci-fi Bourne Identity, and that sounds about right. The action is very bloody and the story is rather dark, and the number of people killed rises exponentially as the story goes along. (As I understand it, this continues on in the sequel, until the 18 billion people run out.) But if you are ok with that, the action of the book is all very fine. It's a bit like _A Deepness in the Sky_, in that it pits tech people/programmers against managers, and has lots of fights on space stations and moon bases, fights that hinge on things like who has access to the reactor or hydroponics section or the armory, or who has root access to the kill-bots. So if you could somehow strain out the ideological irritants in the story, you would just have a good old fashioned tale of righteous programmers liquidating useless and heartless administrators. In that case I'd be perfectly fine in recommending the book. And in a general sense I am sympathetic to the concerns that the author raises. It's not hard to see how the displacement of labor by automation, militarized drones, ubiquitous surveillance, and enormous levels of inequality within society could combine into some very bad things. It's just that I see the people doing the very bad things as those who are currently in power, e.g. the Kochs and the security services, rather than the Tumblr crowd or people interested in reducing inequality. Or to put it another way, the Libertarian hero/Owner of the story seems more likely than anyone to be the cause of the dystopia that the author portrays.
Anyway. Overall this is a flawed and annoying book that made me worry about the safety of the people around the author.
The Killer Angels
A somewhat mawkish war novel set during the three day Battle of Gettysburg. The PoV characters are mostly Confederate or Union leaders (e.g. Longstreet, Lee, Chamberlin), and the author creates fictional inner lives and dialog for the commanders and then places that within a recounting of the events of the battle as we know them. The book didn't really work for me. The tone was a bit off; it reminded me of reading Esquire, or maybe a bad Cormac McCarthy novel, where they try to add more stylistic touches and moral super-structure and metaphysical baggage to people and events than they will really support. On the other hand, the book wasn't all bad. I did like how it at least partially recognized that in many ways the war was a preview of the lessons of WWI, and that in general it was just a gigantic ongoing clusterfuck. The book also served its secondary purpose, which was to get me pumped up for playing Ultimate General: Gettysburg, a new and highly reviewed video game about the battle.
Post-script: After playing the game, it turns out I'm just as bad a general as the originals. To the brigade that I marched into an interlocking series of artillery emplacements, I am so, so sorry.
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
A perfectly absurd book. I read this 900 page tome while dreadfully sick, unable to move from bed or really do anything else. And that is the ideal way to read this book, and about the only way that I could recommend reading it.
The book is immensely overwritten. It tells the pre-history of WWI via character and family. Each of the dozens of historical figures is introduced with a 3+ page life sketch. In addition, you learn about their ancestors, often just to the level of their parents, but the author is really happiest when he can also write another ten or twenty pages about their grand parents and great grand parents too. And there really doesn't seem to be anything that the writer felt the need to leave out. Anecdotes, letters, relationships, adulteries, hobbies, estate histories, early careers, daily habits, office arrangements, inter-office rivalries, everything that the author turned up in his researches is stuffed into this book. If I had come across this manuscript typewritten on someone's desk, and without the official binding and "Pulitzer Prize Winner" quotes on the front, I would suspect the author of severe mental illness. It would be something akin to the hoarder's inability to tell useful material from junk, and never being able to edit out anything that they've accumulated.
And it is a shame; Massey can write with great acuity and precision when he puts his mind to it. There are excellent sections which perfectly explain the European balance of power and diplomatic considerations, or various strategic naval considerations at play. He clearly has a great understanding of the material, and I think he could have written a really wonderful 300 page book on the subject.
Unfortunately though, the clear and useful sections are buried under this weight of European politics as high school pettiness and cliques. There are endless sections on who snubbed who, which royals liked each other, how this state visit went, which ministers disliked each other, how they nepotized or back-stabbed each other, etc. etc. It is kind of interesting in that it paints a picture (an accurate picture?) of the British and German civil service, and their various monarchs. In the end though I'm not sure that all those 100's of pages shed any light on anything. No matter what the soft-relations, Britain's continental policy was the same as it had been for the last 300 years, to support the weaker alliance over the stronger alliance in order to keep any one power from dominating the continent. So in the end I'm not sure that the personal relationships or snubs really mattered that much. Similarly, when writing about 1914 and the arrival of war, Massey is quite clear that A) the German's wanted war, and that B) they saw it as a preventive war, that they needed to undertake when they were at a relative maximum of power and before Russia could start displacing them. And when you are reading this section, it's like "well, why didn't you write about this at all in the previous 850 pages?". I mean, if this was the hard rational for a war that the Germans knew would trigger the various alliance structures, why even bother with all the fluff in the rest of the book? Especially so since at this phase the Kaiser was basically sidelined, so all the pages of psychological modelling of him is moot as he did not affect this key decision.
So, anyway. If you'd want a book that talks about the high level royal and diplomatic life in the 100 years before WWI, I guess this is your book. If you're looking for a book in the vein of the Guns of August, which explains how WWI came to be, then this book is not something I could recommend.
Memorable tidbits from the book:
- The case of the Hussar's breeches. The royal navy was transporting some Hussars, however on arrival their breeches were found to be damaged by saltwater. The hussar's officer tried to get the ship's captain to pay for the damages, he refused, the Hussar appealed to his commander, he made a case to the equivalent naval commander, he kicked it up the chain of command, and so on and so forth through the army and naval hierarchy. At last it reached the First Sea Lord, Fischer, the head of the British Navy. On reading the case file, he promptly threw all of the papers into his fireplace. Problem solved! In some ways things were much simpler before email.
- The beautiful Princess Alexa, who was married to the English King before the war. The book mentions that she was a hottie on approximately ten different occasions. Later on, there is a picture of her at age 64, and wow they were not lying. That was not good genes, or make-up, or the lighting of the photograph. She was obviously a vampire. There is no way that a 64 year old person looks that good. Later on there is supporting evidence; on having to cross the north sea, she was said to have lain motionless on deck "like a corpse". This also agrees with the history laid out in _Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter_.
- Churchill's parents, who took the English habit of ignoring their children to ludicrous extremes. There are about a half dozen of the most over the top, puppy-dog-eyes pleading letters from a tween Churchill, asking for just the barest crumb of kindness or attention from his parents.
- It turns out that among his other douche-bag features, Bismark was a proto-libertarian. He was violently opposed to the German State curtailing the freedom of women and children to work for 14 hours on Sundays.
Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy
The title of this anthology is wildly inaccurate; the stories inside aren't so much urban fantasy as they are a collection of fantasy stories that happen in a city, or nearby a city, or off the coast of a city, or in the ruins of a city, or just fairly near a place that at one time might have had 100 or more people. Similarly, you can ignore the bloviating introduction section that tries to make some deeper connection between the various stories and cities in general. The sophmore English major who wrote it should be ashamed. Also on the shame-list are most of the authors in the second half of the book; most of these stories stink of the MFA and try and fail to be artistic. Reading these stories was like watching one hurdler after another leaping, and then tangling in their hurdle and crashing head long into the ground. There were however some good stories in the first half, things were you read them and you are like yes, I need that in my RPG campaign. The good ones were:
- Sammarynda Deep - Best worldbuilding is best, good writing
- The Funeral, Ruined - worldbuilding!
- Andretto Walks the Kings way - lightly enjoyable and well written
- Courting the Lady Scythe - predictable, but neat worldbuilding
- The Bumbelty's Marble - worldbuilding
- The One that Got Away - unicorns
- The Title of this Story - well written
I would flat out skip the other stories though.
Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter
A surprisingly enjoyable read. I was initially intrigued by the book when I opened it at random and read a scene between a corrupt and licentious Bertie Wooster and his zombie Jeeves as their attempt to subborn a pederast MP goes awry. The rest of the book mixes in other elements, like villainous ministers, demonic foes, gruesome tableaux, meaty combat scenes, historical re-imagining, and a few truly terrible puns. The book isn't a literary masterpiece, but the author did yeoman's work and produced a high quality mix of humor and adventure. It was "fun" to read, unlike the other books in its litter (Accelerando, a random fantasy anthology).
Essays in Idleness
Several hundered musings by a Japanese noble from a millenia ago. The musings are a mixed bag, and in some ways it is like reading random excerpts from the bible. Some musings are useless nonsense, and talk about a minor point of court or village etiquette. These are the equivalent of the "X begat Y" bible passages. Others musings are more relevant and are recognizable as valid points that still apply to the current day. The points aren't original, but it is neat to see them in ancient texts. For example, about how a man who greatly desires wealth will be miserly and live like a poor man in order to achieve his goal. Or more generally, how someone with a great desire will end up acting like someone with no desire in order to best achieve their ends.
Many other passages are more ambivalent. They could be interepreted as Budhist or Taoist parables if you squint hard enough, or they could just be minorly amusing or odd or pointless anecdotes from the author's life. My favorite of the amusing anecdotes was a top-ten list of moments in his life where everything came off perfectly and he looked really cool and knowledgeable in front of people he wanted to impress.
Price of the Stars
A sci-fi adventure story that a so-called "friend" recommended to me. It reads like a semi-passable Star Wars fan fiction. The world building was profoundly uninventive (Blasters, force powers/jedi, Millenium Falcon stand in), the plot was uninteresting, and I stopped around page 100.
A somewhat sub-par Scalzi novel that focuses on tech and robots that directly interface with the brain. The book is set in the near future, but the basic plotline/tech conceit is recycled from his _Old Man's War_ series. If you've read those books, you pretty much know where _Lock In_ is going from page ~50. It doesn't help that Scalzi writing about neuroscience is like a doddering Senator talking about the internet. The science and brain modeling are atrocious; by comparison _Nexus_ looks like a work of genius. The basic writing, dialog, action, and mystery plotting are passable if you haven't read his other books.
More generally, this book combined with a talk by Scalzi have convinced me that Scalzi just isn't a very good author. It would be one thing if he were trying and failing, but the impression I get is that he is just churning out hack work to cash in as quickly as possible. I like for my authors to care a little bit, just a little bit, about the quality of their writing and thinking.
Dresden Files - Storm Front
A perfectly decent urban fantasy detective story. This was one of the earlier entries into the genre, and distinguishes itself by A) never going too dark, unlike a lot of entries in the genre and B) having the protagonist be a wind mage, which I thought was a breath of fresh air. Also, no werewolves as of yet!
An enjoyable short story. I've never been able to read a Landry novel before, simply because I find the main character and his "humor" to be terribly repellant. This time though, I employed the Thomas Covenant solution (skip any parts that involve the protagonist's thoughts; just read the action and dialogue), and enjoyed the story a lot. The monster was wonderfully graphic, and the historical connections and machinations were great.
An interesting and enjoyable modern thriller that walks on the edge between science and magic. The conceit of the book is that certain word patterns can short circuit decision making and force someone to obey a command. This knowledge is carefully guarded and selectively shared among adepts. The exact words needed to command someone depend on the target's personality type, so the adepts practice both hiding their own personality types and learning to observe others. The book covers the training and plotting of these adepts against each other, especially as a new uber-command-word is uncovered. There are lots of nice touches to the book. The writing is of a general high quality, and I very much liked the characters, the plotting, the action scenes, and a number of small and vivid details/ideas. The main bad guy in particular was a hoot. The ending turned out to be a bit trite, but the journey was enjoyable.
While I mostly liked the book, it never completely came together for me and made it into the territory of 4 or 4.5 stars. I think part of the reason is that I had issues with the world building given the central conceit. It's basically the same problems I had with _The Night Circus_. The first problem is that don't like these sorts of mind-mages as protagonists. Their whole schtick is enslaving people, so it is like having Southern plantation owners, or the _Deepness in the Sky_ slavers, or Aboleths as your protagonists. Now, you *could* do this and write a very dark book, but that should be a conscious choice. What doesn't work for me is when you make your protagonists all slavers, and then more or less ignore your choice. It makes the tone all wrong for me at several points in the book.
The second problem is that I can't see how a society of these people could reasonably develop. If anyone around you could enslave you by uttering a few words, I feel like you kind of have to kill/enslave them first, if for no other reason than to stop them from doing it to you. Encounters between mind-mages seem like they should be like encounters between people on _The Road_. At best, each mind-mage would have their own small empire of enslaved servitors, where at least a little stunted society could exist. Actually, come to think of it _A Deepness in the Sky_ did have this, and did put some actual thought in to how these masters could more-or-less safely interact. So, go Vinge?
This was an informative and humorous book that mixes personal anecdote, company politics, and a broad overview of the financial markets in the 70's and 80's. The story follows the author through his recruitment, training, and moderate success at Salomon Brothers, one of the preeminent bond traders during the time. Along the way he introduces various characters at the firm, covers the history of the firm, and explains the way the various economic trends played out during that time. He also manages to sneak in explanations of what a bond trader actually does, how the various markets interact, and how junk bonds, mortgage traded securities, and other financial instruments came into being and developed. It's a surprisingly funny and enjoyable read considering the amount of fact and detail that is packed into it. I think a lot of it is the author's voice, which is self-depreciating and appropriately distant from the events and passions of the firm. The tone reminded me of one of my favorite books, _Complete and Utter Failure_, which recognizes the sort of humor to be found in most human endeavor when viewed from the correct distance.
Even if the book wasn't funny, and didn't serve as a beginning primer for finance, I'd still think it worthwhile as a clear statement of basic financial truths. Money is not distributed according to "worth", money doesn't necessarily produce a good life, and much of the activity in finance is somewhere between a con game and a casino. Those seem like important life lessons that more people should know.
Oh, and it has useful quote for programmers and bond traders: "God gave you eyes, plagarize!"
Selected Stories by Robert Walser
A very odd book. It contains dozens of 2 and 4 page stories, and then one 50 page whale of a story. Over and over, I would read the first third of a story, and think "Why am I reading this? It makes no sense, is not enjoyable, tells me nothing, and is enormously repetitive and overwritten." And then in the last half of the story Walser would bring things around, and create something really delightful and beautiful. The stories are difficult to describe, but share a common family of characteristics. They are often whimsical, and usually written with a sort of Vancian overblownness and overflowing of formality and elucidation. They are told by dandies, wretches, and precocious children, and they have a stream-of-consciousness feel about them. By stream-of-consciousness I mean not so much that they abandon punctuation, but rather they mirror the experience of walking a lot, and producing many thoughts, but not necessarily having any final consistency between the thoughts. Or to put it another way, it is like asking someone to describe themselves in multiple situations or on different days, and getting a range of different self-images or life-stories/life orderings. It's not really an effect that I have seen very often in literature.
Anyway! The stories are slow reading, and they completely avoid narrative arcs, action, or plot. They are however beautiful and unique.
Shadow of the Wind
This story combines gothic soap opera with some uninspiring meta-literary ideas. Like N-thousand books before it, Shadow of the Wind focuses on writing, books, and the love of reading. Many of the characters are book sellers, writers, translators, librarians, wide-eyed book lovers, etc. The villians like televison. The story unfolds as the young protagonist tries to track down the history of a certain novel, going from one tidbit of information and small tale to the next. He learns about the novel's author, and how the drama in the author's life parallels the drama in the protagonist's life. It is a similar setup to the Harry Potter books, except that in this case the main story is Spanish soap opera rather than adventures at a wizard boarding school. If you're into Spanish soap opera, this is great! If you're not, then it is less so. There are Dad's being murderously upset over their daughter's virginity, people obsessing over their first love from 20 years ago, a complete unawareness of birth control, vows of eternal vengeance, pining caretakers and parents, mistaken/assumed identities, cursed houses, etc. Hmmmm, I might be making it sound better than it is. Anyway, there is a lot of this soap opera (500 pages), and while I realize the soap opera was an intentional style, I didn't entirely enjoy it and had trouble connecting with the character's contrived and willfully bad decisions. Seriously, if the head of the city police threatens to use a blow torch on you, *again*, just move to a different city. More generally, I felt that there was this weird mismatch between the light-hearted and adventerous tone of much of the book, and the deadly state-sactioned violence that the main characters were risking. Compare this to another Gothic book, Melmoth the Wanderer, which is un-relentingly grim and has a much, much deeper stack-trace of nested stories. I feel like Melmoth's consistency and extremism works much better in a Gothic novel.
The Shadow of the Wind did have its bright spots. The author isn't a bad writer, and there were many small spots of charming dialog and vivid description. It's just that the overall plot and design of the book never really cohered for me.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches
A decent generalist history of the Comanches and, well, their rise and fall. The book presents a meandering mix of historical developments and personal stories from the frontier. The history part is fairly straight forward and serviceably written, and is mostly just a recounting of the events that occurred. The personal histories were occasionally interesting, but I felt like they often confused the historical progression more than they enlightened. I almost would have preferred two books or two different sections; one the history and one the extended anecdote. The book is fairly brutal and un-PC, and does describe several dozen of the more notable atrocities.
While the book wasn't that great overall, Empire of the Summer Moon did have several points that raised it to a solid 3 stars. One is that much of the book is set in Central Texas, and it was neat to read the history of the place where you grew up. A second reason is that the tactics of plains warfare were interesting, and how in some ways the plains really did mirror the "ocean" of grass that it was compared to. Horses were as necessary as ships were in the ocean, and to be deprived your horse could easily mean death by exposure and deprivation. Similarly, the Comanches never focused on taking or holding a fort or hill, in the same way that navies wouldn't care about a few square miles of ocean. Speed was the best defense, and everything was about scouting, setting up advantageous engagements, and protecting your own population centers while threatening your enemy's. Actually, it reminds me more of the start of the Culture-Iridan war than anything else, if the Culture had had more Reaver in them. Although I guess the Reavers were partially based off the Comanche, so that is a bit circular. Anyway.
Finally, I enjoyed the book as a corroboration of the theories laid out in Diamond's _Guns, Germs, and Steel_. The sort of same-lattitude technology transfers that Diamond emphasized about took place here, where the horses bred in Arabia were transferred and flourished on the Texas Plains. This led to the ascent of the Comanche, as they fully adapted their formerly marginal society to the new technology. They became mini-Mongols who were able to dominate a huge swathe of the mid-continent, and hold off enormous hordes of settlers for decades. It's interesting to think about what the Comanches could have become, if they hadn't received the technology 1000 years after the Eurasians did.
P.S. They have several pictures of various settler families. Jesus they were a tough and angry looking bunch. If the question is "How many high plains five year olds I could take in a fight?", I think the answer is 1? maybe 2?