The Player of Games, by Iain M Banks Rothdas book review RSS
4.0 Stars
8-4-2015

This was an inadvertent re-read, as I had purchased a copy for a friend and wanted to just refresh my memory of a few parts. Lol, we know how that turns out. I enjoyed the book on the second time around, though not nearly so much as the first. I found parts of the book to be more preachy and heavy-handed than the first time through. I was also more aware and bothered by a flaw that I mentioned last time, that the game Azad, which is the primary field of contention for most of the book, can never really be described. There are large parts of the book where there just isn't anyway for the author to have any detail in the writing, since the thing he is writing about is so nebulous. The McGuffin becomes the Albatross. Banks does better with the smaller games mentioned earlier in the book, since these he can actually outline and fill in some detail for. So, not a bad book, but I think it suffered a bit on re-read. Still very fun, snappy, and creative in many respects.




The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Borges
2.0 Stars
7-30-2015

I picked this up since it seemed like it might be neat, and at the very least I could mine it for ideas to use in different games that I run/make. I ended up with the "least" scenario. The book is not particularly fun to read. It's not bad, but it's not something I would read if I were not looking for ideas for imaginary monsters. The book does have the usual Borges conceit of intertwining the fantastical and the historical, which is kind of cool, but in this instance it is not functionally different from the usual Monster Manual strategy of taking something that exists in the real world or in a real world myth and using it as a template/inspiration for your new fantastical creation. Or to put it another way, what Borges was using as a delightful literary idea 50 years ago has become, through the vagaries of the nerd entertainment complex, a standard and slightly lazy method to churn out product. Anyway. I was not unhappy that I read the book, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is not GMing or game designing.




Invitation to a Beheading, by Nabokov
5.0 Stars
7-11-2015

A wonderful, absurd, surreal, and darkly comic novel about a man condemned to die. It is like Nabokov took the last section of _The Stranger_, stretched the narrative out like taffy, and then subjected Meursault to a hundred different farces and indignities. Except in this case the protagonist is more likable and more innocent than Meursault, and the society that imprisons him more totalitarian and more Zemblan, and the ending more ... something? In any case, there is a neat sort of solipsistic shadow struggle carried on through out the book, and naturally it reaches its climax at the final scene.

Overall it is a delightful book. Two notes of caution though: Note 1) the first 20-30 pages are a bit slow, so stick with it for bit until the pieces start fitting together. Note 2) In my printing, the back of the book had horrible, terrible spoilers. Like, 3 sentences that just ruined some of the wonderful situations that Nabokov set up. So, grade A trolling on the part of the publishers. I'm not sure why people complain about 4Chan or Reddit when hooligans like Random House are allowed to roam free. If you are interested in the novel at all, rip the back cover off the book and toss it to the wind.

Ok, I cannot resist, here is a final bonus note. The next book on the Nabokov list is _Pale Fire_, which I would be reading already if I hadn't accidentally reserved the audio book version from the library. Pale Fire is a re-read, and while doing some browsing about it I came across this original, hilarious, NYTimes review of Pale Fire from when it was first published.
https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/02/lifetimes/nab-r-palefire.html
Wow. I'm sure I've misread a book this badly at some point in my life, but fortunately I've never published it on the internet to be preserved for all time.




The Enchanter, by Nabokov
5.0 Stars
6-13-2015

I started off my new Nabokov campaign by randomly choosing this, and Wowwwwwww. The Enchanter is like the Wasp Factory on crack. It is the hipster version of Lolita, for people who were into old men who were into young girls before it was cool. A stunningly uncomfortable 100 pages.




Single and Single, by Le Carre
5.0 Stars
6-10-2015

Another wonderful Le Carre book. It starts with a brutal and amazing in media res, and moves outward from there to explore the various ties of family, friendship, love, history, money, and betrayal in an international criminal conspiracy. Like with many Le Carre books, it is quite sweet despite the subject matter, with a focus on character and relationships that is only occasionally interrupted by AK-47s.




The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy
4.0 Stars
6-7-2015

Lol. I am definitely giving a copy of this to two of my engaged friends.




The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
3.0 Stars
6-3-2015

A decent book, that loses a some of its enjoyment simply because times have changed and much of it is no longer that relevant. The story has two main parts that are woven together. The shorter and more enjoyable part is a re-imagining of the Christ story. This re-imagining is from the viewpoint of Pontius Pilate, and is a sort of collision between security services and real-politik on the one hand and a supernatural peace on the other. This story is written in the style of a hyper realistic political or spy novel, with a focus on details like the troop contingents assigned to different areas, the division of political power in Jerusalem, the characters in the Roman security services, etc. These were my favorite chapters, both because they are actually moving and because of the interesting and unusual perspective on an old story.

The second and larger part of the book is set in 1930's Russia, as the Devil comes to Moscow. Here the tone is reversed; as the Devil and his cohorts trick, tempt, baffle, humiliate, and only occasionally decapitate various officials and venal self-seekers in Moscow. This Devil isn't so much a lord of darkness, as a fairy-tail figure, a fickle and powerful tester of mankind. He comments that the people of Moscow don't seem to be any worse than earlier people, it is just the housing crisis that makes them bad. :) A lot of this story is about the Devil's tricks to get a suitable apartment for himself and his entourage, as well as other people's efforts to secure lodging there once they realize spots have opened up. Anyway, this part is fine, and writing it certainly must have taken courage when you lived in 1930's Russia, but much of the humor and commentary is not as biting in 2015. If it was written about the San Francisco housing market or some such I might enjoy it more. There's also a love story that gives the book its title, but that didn't really do much for me either. For some reason I've never really clicked with Russian love stories.




The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
5.0 Stars
5-27-2015

Another re-read, this time of the first Iain Banks book that I ever read. The Wasp Factory is still a snappy and hilarious little novel, and it is still a great and small and clear example of the qualities that I love so much in Banks. There is a wealth of invention, detail, wit, precise action, and clever/brutal plotting. It also has the sort of moral divide that you find in a lot of Banks' books, though usually not as simply and distinctly. One the one hand there is a sort of downward seeking, atavistic, Thanatopic mode of thought, and on the other hand a sort of upward seeking or life seeking mode of thought. I tend towards this sort of Manichean thinking myself, so it resonates with me. The Wasp Factory isn't Banks' most complex or deepest book, but it is still a fun read.




The Nice and The Good, by Iris Murdoch
7.0 Stars
5-18-2015

As always, it is a bit of a shock coming back to Murdoch. Her style is so odd in some ways, moving between unprovoked bursts of metaphysics and high-flown desire to a cold blooded evaluation of psychological/social/sexual mechanics. One way to think of her books is as a replay or demonstration of how she thinks these mechanisms work, as well as propaganda (in the best possible way) for various ways in which she thinks people should live. Anyway, I like it. She accurately describes at least some experiences that I'm familiar with, which gives me hope that she is getting other things right, and there are at least a few tidbits in each book that I've taken away and incorporated. Err, what else to say. This story is a sort of Iris-Murdoch-Occult-Noir-Love story? But the focus is never on plot, it is pretty much all on psychology and relationships.




Marque and Reprisal, by Elizabeth Moon-Moon
1.0 Stars
5-10-2015

Ok, I read another one. In my defense, I had already checked it out from the library and left it in the bathroom. It was an improvement over the first one, in that there was an actual action scene. There was also the weird and continual contract parsing of the first book; reading it reminded me most strongly of filling out the paperwork to rent an apartment. There was also some of the most awkward and sad flirting that I've ever read. I kind of want to give the author a hug.




Trading in Danger, by Elizabeth Moon-Moon
1.0 Stars
5-6-2015

This book is a sort of low quality imitation of David Weber's already low quality Honor Harrington series. _Trading in Danger_ does at least make you appreciate all the things the Honorverse books did well. For all their flaws, the Honorverse books did have a certain compulsive readability (or listenability) and a beer and pretzels charm. Weber's series has high stakes, more interesting plots, tactical/strategic puzzles, better tech/world building, and even better characterization. Moon's first book just felt very flat. The relationships never quite clicked, the plot was kind of Hardy Boys level, and much of the made up tech was glossed over. Moon did have a lot of legalese and contract negotiation in her book though, so she has that going for her. :(

There's also a continuous fellating of military over civilian values. Not that great.




Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford
2.0 Stars
5-4-2015

A disappointing and tepid book. There are two basic elements to this book. One is a sort of slice-of-life story telling in 1950's - 1970's Russia, especially amongst the scientists, engineers, and managers. It's natural to compare this to The Gulag Archipelago or The Cancer Ward, since these books have the same time period, location, type of characters, and general structure of storytelling. And when you compare them, Red Plenty comes up very lacking. It is the difference between The Wire (Gulag Archipelago) and an NBC cop show (Red Plenty). The characters in Red Plenty simply never felt right; they never matched up to my conception of how these characters should act or think. They lack the hardness and reality and details that you find in something like Gulag Archipelago, or in Isaac Babel, or even in novels like The Master and Margarita or Road Side Picnic. As Mao put it, Spufford has grown up eating only honey, and it makes his novel seem very false in its basic characterization and story telling (not that there is anything wrong with honey; I love honey! But at the same time I wouldn't try to write these characters.) Reading through the footnotes, Spufford is familiar with most of the Russian novels I listed above, so I guess he just has a lot of misplaced confidence? In fairness, there are some isolated parts at the middle and end of the book where the writing finally starts to come together, but by that time my patience for the book was *really* wearing thin. Page 300 is not the time to try and get the reader interested.

The second element to the book is the potential use of computers and algorithms in order to centrally plan and regulate the entire Soviet economy. This is ok? There are a couple of dozen good pages about this, but in terms of ideas it is not anything you would not pick up from a 4 year CS degree and either reading the back cover of the book or just having read some articles on all the different ways that metrics can pervert decision making.




Absolute Friends, by Le Carre
3.0 Stars
4-24-2015

A surprisingly sweet Le Carre book, which is partially spoiled by a predictable and strident ending. This review is a bit spoilery, so if you are interested in reading the book I would perhaps stop... here.

The story covers 60+ years in the life of Ted Mundy, a British leftist, jack of all trades, and occasional spy. There is his early life in Pakistan, then boarding school in England, protest movements in Germany, lotus eating in America, a return to Britain to serve as a cold war spy, and then finally in late life one more espionage adventure. And of course there is the "Absolute Friend" from the title, Sasha, the German leftist, radical, idealist, and double agent, who is Mundy's companion through much the story.

There are a lot of familiar Le Carre themes in this book, but they have a lighter and happier touch than usual. The main character has a fractured and outcast background that prepares him for spying, but he retains a solid heart. He is psychologically fluid like in the _Tailor of Panama_ or _Little Drummer Girl_, but not so much that he splatters into a thousand little droplets. He does pay a price for his espionage during the Cold War, but the price is not so high that it destroys him. And after 60+ years, he has a happiness and peace and the knowledge that his efforts did some good in the world. Oh! And he has a 20 year old stand in for his childhood crush, which is nice for him, I guess. That takes us up to the final part of the book, where Mundy dips his toe back into the world of espionage. At this point it is like a Nabokov novel that has almost reached the end without something really terrible happening; you know that something is up. The last plot/scenes resolve in pretty much the way you would expect it to if you have read the rest of Le Carre's work. I'm not sure I would call it predictable, just in the sense that if something is sign posted enough you start to suspect a fake out after all and you wrap back around to expecting a different twist. But it is very typically Le Carre. The post script was also somewhat long and over done; it's not so much that I disagree with the general ideas, as I do with the cartoonish levels of malevolence and competence that Le Carre ascribes to some parties. I think that part of the reason the ending didn't age well is that it is very much a product of its time, which was immediately after 9/11 and the Iraq invasion, but before that invasion had become widely known as a fiasco.

Quote of the book: "Lawyers are all assholes."




The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
4-6-2015

This is a fairly standard Banks' sci-fi novel, which is another way of saying that it is wildly inventive, smart, enjoyable, and engrossing. Banks has a wonderful ability to create completely enchanting worlds, such that after reading there is this drop or context switch where you have to reload the actual world and how it works. This is a really high mark of quality, and something that I almost never find now that I'm a terribly jaded and sophisticated reader. So, go Banks! :) :D :P

In more detail: The book is not set in the main Culture universe, but it does share many similar themes and ideas. There are multiple levels of simulation/reality and pondering on their worth, there are AI's and AI haters, there are deceptions and clue hunting journeys to exotic locals, there are Azad like empires of varying degrees of cruelty, there are space battles, and there is a technologically superior, affable, intelligent and more life-seeking Culture like grouping. In addition, since this universe doesn't have the widely available FTL travel of the Culture novels, there are a lot of neat ideas about how buildable (and destroyable) wormholes that can only be moved at slower than light speeds would play out on a galactic scale. In addition to these higher level ideas, there is a continual stream of invention and detail in the various races, histories, locations, characters, and religions. Really, there is an embarrassment of ideas in here, and any one of them could have been the foundation for another author's entire novel. This is actually what drew me back to the novel; I had first read the Algebraist years ago, and wanted to refresh my memory of one of the religions in the book. (The religion is a variant of Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument). I had meant to just find a few passages about the religion, but ended up consuming the entire book. The story moved much faster than I remember (or maybe the Atwood has re-calibrated my idea of what a slow novel is like?), and I think I enjoyed the Algebraist even more the second time around.




The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
3.0 Stars
3-17-2015

I came to this book with high hopes. The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize, and when I think of Booker Prizes I think of Iris Murdoch's wonderful _The Sea, The Sea_. Unfortunately, Atwood is not quite an Iris, and I don't think The Blind Assassin is of the same order of magnitude as Iris' works.

In terms of pure writing style, Atwood is never less than perfectly competent, and she does a good job with description, character, dialog, and occasional dry or biting humor. The writing isn't as brilliant as something like _A Stranger in Olandria_, but it is descriptive and readable and quite skillful. I particularly liked her biting notes to literary critics and thesis students. Nabokov had a similar talent; I get the feeling that authors spend a lot of mental energy composing these rejoinders. :)

The setting and plotting and structure of the novel were less agreeable to me. The book is somewhat dreary. Most of it is set in a small Canadian town around 1910-1950, and the primary narrator is a poor and elderly and regretful lady of that town. So, already the setting is pretty damn depressing, especially if you hate snow and ice and cold like I do. The plot is similarly grim. I don't want to spoil too much, but it's a bit like if Sansa and Arya were both captured by the Lannisters, and then lived with the Lannisters for a couple of decades, and then an elderly Sansa started writing her memoirs. Except that in that case there would at least be a lot of plotting and intrigue over the decades. In the Blind Assassin, there really is not that much plot going on. I feel like I could cover all of the major plot developments in 2-3 sentences, which is a problem when a book is 500+ pages long. One of the reasons this relatively simple plot stretches on for so long is the structure of the novel. The novel is told through 4 interleaved threads. One thread is the thoughts of an elderly Sansa in the present day (1990's), one thread is her reminisces of growing up (1910's-1940's), and then the other 2 threads are from an in-universe book, also called _The Blind Assassin_. The in-universe book is divided into 2 threads, one thread being a novelization/mirror of crucial "real life" events in the 1930's, the other thread being a Conan-style fantasy novel called, you guessed it, The Blind Assassin. So you have 4 threads, but the main plot is only moved along by 2 of them, and those two threads are in large part repeating/mirroring themselves. Maybe I was too unobservant to fully appreciate how the threads interacted with and supported each other, but to me it seemed like there were really 3 stories here, any one of which might have been fine, but when mashed together often slowed down and interrupted each other. As a final and hugely insensitive criticism, I would say that reading this reminded me a bit of reading some of Shakespeare's stories. You understand that the times and ideas were different, but you can't help thinking that man, if they could just abandon some of their meta-physical super structure and other bad ideas about how the world should work, they could have avoided a lot of trouble/death, and dealt with things in a much more sensible manner. Or to put it another way, if their education had only included the complete works of Iris Murdoch, they could have gone about their idealism much more effectively.

So! That is that. I actually liked the in-universe fantasy novel that Atwood created, and would have gladly read a full version of that. I also would have enjoyed an abbreviated, maybe 250 page version of the main plot line. Even the cynical and elderly Sansa would have been ok on her own. The amalgamated story line though was less than the sum of its parts, and it really only makes it to 3 stars on the solid strength of Atwood's writing.




The Way of all Flesh, by Samuel Butler
2.5 Stars
3-12-2015

First off, despite the title this is not a zombie book. I know, it fooled me too. The book is instead a semi-humorous, semi-auto-biographical account of the writer's life, with most of the story taking place in England around the year 1850. The heart of the book is the struggle of the author to break from his parents and from the path to priesthood that they had set him on. This part is regularly interspersed with jokes, stories, philosophical tangents, and a general happy cynicism, and overall it works well. It's not quite Jeeves, or Three Men in a Boat, but for something written in 1850 it is surprisingly readable and enjoyable. I would snort and/or lol every 3-5 pages or so, and you feel for the guy, his terrible childhood, his misplaced idealism, and his willingness to lay out some truly embarrassing scenes of himself. The actual institutions he is criticizing are mostly discredited and gone now, so you miss some of the original impact of the book, but it is still enjoyable to read and the story makes familiar a somewhat unfamiliar time and place.

The heart of the book works well, but the appendages not so much. The first ~50 pages are fairly dull, as the author tells the story of the previous 2 generations of his family. There are only a few bright spots here, mostly about his parent's awkward courtship and marriage. The last ~80 pages are also lackluster. At this stage of the writing he lost the editor who had helped him with the rest of the book, and it really shows. The humor mostly goes missing, and rather than being a description of bad things happening to him, it becomes description of the author being an asshole once he comes into his money and freedom. He becomes unhappy with his wife, and then happily finds a reason to annul their marriage and put her back on the streets. He is unhappy with his entire family, so he breaks with all of them. He certainly doesn't want to raise his kids, so he ships them off for someone else to take care of. Literally, he is walking in the park, sees a working class family that seems cheerful, and he hands his kids and a stipend over to them. Parenting complete for the next 10 years! This part I actually liked, since it helped explain to me the British habit of avoiding their children (e.g. Churchill and his parents). At least in the author's case, the reasoning was that he was made miserable and hostile by interacting with his parents, so there's no need to repeat the process with his own kids. Instead he simply provides for them and tries to put them in a decent place to develop. Once he's taken care of all the family tasks, the author then sits back and spends the rest of the book living a life of leisure on top of his massive stacks of cash. Ok, I can't really fault him on that point. :)

In summary, the book isn't bad reading and it has aged fairly well, but it's not the deepest thing or the funniest thing that has been written.




Darkness Visisble
3.0 Stars
1-30-2015

A novel about a Manichean struggle that goes on in a 1960's British town. The novel follows the lives of several people in the town, especially their childhoods, and tracks them as they develop and intertwine. The tone of the novel is very odd. On the one hand, it is definitely Christian. There are angels, divine spells (Flame Strike, level 5), and when a holy apparition is questioned as to why bad things happen, it goes with the standard Christian Chewbacca Defense (i.e. free will). On the other hand, just about everything in the novel is dry and/or depressing. For example, there is Matty, the holy character who takes up about 50% of the pages. Matty is multiply disfigured, socially isolated, border-line retarded, has difficulty speaking, and is without friends or family. His religion, which seems to be the factually correct one in the story, is ultra-ultra-Old-Testament and completely alien to any modern sensibility. And he is the cheerful part of the book! The other main characters include a haggard and disgraced elderly pederast, the ineffectual and acid tongued owner of a failing book store, and the Twins of Evil. The twins are intelligent, rich, and beautiful, but also kind of satanic-nihilists. The smarter twin turns to terrorism, while the more physical one starts with duckling-murder, moves to petty-violent crime, and then moves to non-petty violent crime. She also dabbles in a sort of mouldering witch-craft. So, none of the characters are very likable, and the story as a whole doesn't try very hard to draw you along. There are parts that are very readable, but they're certainly not in the first 100 pages, and they're usually broken up by rather more dull sections.

To this list of difficulties I would add that the novel can be more than a bit difficult to understand. Part of it is that I'm not British, and so I don't have a very deep understanding of the differences between Poms and Australians. Part of it is just that the times and diction are a bit different. For example, at one point the book seller tells his male friend to believe his wife, since "she has more bosom than you". This is supposed to be this really serious accidental insult, something that might actually cause a libel suit? And as best as I can figure, the book seller was just implying that his friend was somewhat feminine. There are also a number of spots through out the book, where it seems like the author is saying two contradictory things, and you have to kind of back track and figure out which word in the sentence has a non-modern meaning. For example:

"His sexuality - and this was brilliantly perceived by his fellows - was in direct proportion to his unattractiveness. He was high-minded; and his fellows considered this to be his darkest sin."

On first reading, I took the first sentence to mean that he was an unattractive horn-dog, but then the second sentence contradicts that. The first sentence is actually just saying he has a large cock-volume. So that was fairly easy to figure out, but there are other cases where it is not so clear, and all you can tell is that the first reading maybe doesn't quite make sense?

Hmm, so, what does the novel have going for it? For one, it is well written. Despite occasionally having to puzzle over it, there are some beautiful passages, and it expresses a wide variety of interesting imagery and experience. The Old Testament experiences are presented with a suitable strangeness, and it's very much like having something from Ezkiel transposed to a post-War Britain. The book is also very emo in certain parts, which I like, and it goes deep into several different types or religious or interior experiences. The book also has a happy ending, in that the alien-old-testament-angels seem to achieve their plan?




HellBoy Issues 1-250
4.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This series has been an ongoing read for the last couple of months, and one that I have very much enjoyed.

Most of the episodes are the brain-children of Mike Mignola, who is that rare and wonderful triple-threat of design, writing, and art. He plotted and wrote about 90% of the issues, and he did the art for another good chunk of them. I'm not a comic books or visual arts expert, but I really appreciated the sort of spare and stylized and wildly inventive work that Mignola does. That's not to say that the other artists are bad (they're not! And it's neat to see the same characters in ~10 different styles), but it was Mignola's work that first drew me in. Another way of complementing him is to mention that ~20 of the early issues of Hellboy were created by standard comic-book writers, and the difference between their work and Mignola's is just night and day. The non-Mignola issues are pure hack work, and should definitely be skipped over.

Of the 230 issues that remain, only about 30% of them are actually about the titular Hellboy. This isn't really a bad thing, as Hellboy has a tiny bit of the Superman problem of being too invulnerable, and his themes can end up being a bit too repetitive. He's still a neat character though, and it helps that you see him all through his life. There are growing up vignettes, the months spent wrestling and boozing in Mexico, and tons of one-off investigations in the 50's-80's, in addition to the main story line issues. It's also consistently neat how Hellboy perceives and interacts with the living, the long-dead, and the super-natural in a seamless fashion. That is to say, from his perspective the spirit of someone who died 50 years ago, or was executed 600 years, ago is just as real and normal as a living person standing in the same room. So his stories often have these psychedelic transitions between the present day, the past, the spiritual, and the supernatural.

Most of the non-HellBoy issues are set in the BPRD, a government agency responsible for investigating, pre-empting, and trying to contain various supernatural and Lovecraftian threats. The stories cover teams of human and super-natural BPRD agents as they go on their missions. As someone who grew up on X-Com, I am deeply, deeply primed to love this sort of setting. And as with X-Com, things often don't go very well, and there is an appropriately high casualty rate for mortal agents trying to deal with various end-times monsters. There are a couple of rolling apocalypses in the story, as the after-effects of the Nazi space-program have started to release the 369 Lovecraftian monsters buried beneath the earth! Mignola is great with Lovecraftian monster design; for the big ones they are rarely just one thing, rather they unroll and molt and sprout and sporulate in a dozen different ways. He also earns points for destroying most of Houston in an enormous volcano; as a long time resident of the city I say it can't happen too soon.

Besides the above story lines, there are couple of offshoot storylines that have grown to various proportions. There's a witchfinder in the 1600's, an emo and peg-legged and harpoon wielding vampire hunter around pre-WWI Europe, the cheerful and cunning Russian sailor who's water-logged corpse rose to be the head of the Russian BPRD, and of course, the incomparable Lobster Johnson, who is Mignola's version of a golden age Batman or Phantom. Lobster Johnson seems to be a little supernatural (he might be re-incarnating in the corpses of the criminals he has branded?), but he mainly relies on fists, guns, cleverness, and an unshakeable dedication to justice. I started off a bit skeptical, but as with all of Mignola's work I quickly got into it. Feel the Lobster's Claw!

Hmm, what else to say at this point. I think Mignola does a great job with the advice that I've had a few times on this page, that it's ok to just tell small, mostly self-contained, clever stories. I will happily read a 100 of them, as long as they are this high of quality.




The Constant Gardner
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

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
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

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).




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