Aardy R. DeVarque (aardy) wrote,
Aardy R. DeVarque

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Books that I read in July

30. Williams, Tad. The Dragonbone Chair (783 p.)

31. Gaiman, Neil; adapted & illustrated by P. Craig Russell. Coraline (186 p.)

32. Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the Dead (278 p.)

33. Braun, Lilian Jackson. The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern (247 p.)

34. Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front (175 p.)

35. Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon (217 p.)

36. Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky (231 p.)

37. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby (182 p.)

38. Asimov, Isaac. The Currents of Space (231 p.)

39. Christie, Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express (191 p.)

40. Sakai, Stan. Tomoe's Story (182 p.)

41. Brown, Dan. Angels & Demons (572 p.)

July total: 3,435 pages
YTD total: 12,281 pages

I ended up reading a lot of books this month, compared to most previous months this year, as I was trying to participate in my library's summer reading contest for staff. This involved reading 8 library-owned books between June 4 and August 4, and since most of June was taken up reading a book the library did not (yet) own (With the Light) and The Dragonbone Chair, that meant getting at least seven more read during July. I still wanted to get through my shelves of "to read" books here at home, so I picked out a stack of books from my home collection that the library also owns--which proved to be more difficult to compile than I thought it would be, and resulted in my reading several literary classics for the first time.

The Dragonbone Chair is the first in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. Simon starts off as an orphan working in the king's kitchens, and through repeatedly being in the right place at the wrong time, end up becoming the bearer of one of three magic swords that are mankind's only hope against a horde of evil, nigh-immortal elves.

I'd say it's one of those where you want to yell at the characters for doing bone-headed things, except it's also one of those where evil is darn-near omnipotent and the heroes have basically zero chance no matter what they do. Even with the magic maguffin in hand by the end of the book, there still doesn't seem to be any hope for anything remotely resembling a happy ending unless the forces of evil suddenly become both incompetent and impotent. I'm still tempted to read books two and three, because I'm interested enough in several of the characters that I'd like to see how it all turns out, but I'm not looking forward to slogging through two more books of this size before we get anything resembling a denoument, especially since the remaining two maguffins that need to be acquired by the ragtag forces of Good are apparently within a few hundred yards of each other.

I haven't read the original prose version of Coraline, but I've been told several times that it must be added to my to-read pile. When this graphic novel adaptation crossed my desk, I saw the magic words "Gaiman" and "Russell", and decided to give it a whirl.

The tale of tween-ager Coraline being transported to a quasi-mirror universe and having to figure out how to rescue her parents and escape the villain's clutches is a novel take on a basically familiar theme. Gaiman has once again managed to take well-used elements and spin something new, intriguing, and vaguely unsettling out of them. P. Craig Russell's art style is so stylized that it wouldn't normally have been my first choice for this sort of project, but it works quite well here; it comes of similar to Paul Smith's work on Leave it to Chance (or rather, Smith's work there is somewhat reminiscent of Russell's normal style).

I thoroughly enjoyed this, even though it's somewhat predictable. (That comes with the territory of being an adult reading a book whose primary audience is children, and therefore is not necessarily a bad thing.) Folks were right to recommend this book to me, and I definitely recommend it--especially if you are a fan of unexpurgated versions of fairy tales, the Twilight Zone, dark fantasy, or horror. Now I'll have to see about taking time at some point to read the original and compare, and that's not a reaction I always have when dealing with adaptations.

Eaters of the Dead is Michael Crichton's retelling of Beowulf, and was his response to a challenge that the story of Beowulf, while important to the history of literature, was not at all interesting to modern audiences. The book is probably best known for its movie adaptation, The 13th Warrior.

Since the movie stayed relatively close to the book, I already knew the story and how it elaborates on/diverges from the original Beowulf tale, but enjoyed reading the medieval treatise-style prose rendition, and in particular the description of adventures on the Arabic trade routes north into Russia that were glossed over in the movie. Some of the parts of the movie that I found hardest to believe (e.g. the remarkably homo sapiens-appearing "wendol" and the way the trip into the caves was handled) worked much better in the book, where my imagination filled in the descriptive gaps.

The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern is the second in the "Cat who..." series, and is the book where newspaper reporter/amateur detective Jim Qwilleran and his mystery-solving Siamese cat Koko first meet the third in their crime-busting trio, Siamese cat Yum Yum.

Unlike many modern mysteries, the initial crime being investigated here is not a murder but rather the theft of a collection of jade objects worth a few million dollars. The obligatory murder doesn't happen until half-way through the book. The titular "Danish Modern" is a 1960s style of furniture, and the clue that ends up solving the (linked, of course) crimes is revealed after Koko nibbles on a Danish Modern-style chair.

Overall, this was a fun romp, especially Jim Qwilleran's attempts to start up a weekly architectural supplement for the local paper without somehow causing disaster for the homes he covers. However, I wasn't particularly satisfied with the way the various subplots were tied up at the end and the explanation of whodunnit; one subplot in particular regarding a character's sudden trip to Amsterdam seemed to be woefully underutilized--as if it started off being intended to be relevant, then was turned into a red herring, then was revised to be relevant again, and ended up falling between the stools. That may be a sign of a writer who was still working on mastering the art; the later Koko and Yum Yum books I've read have held up much better to such scrutiny.

All Quiet on the Western Front was the first of more books I read in the last six weeks than I would have predicted that were all originally published between 1929 and 1931. This depiction of life in the German army during World War I is all over high school English class reading lists, but I'd managed to miss it until now.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking back to Starship Troopers; the two books are very similar on many levels, and I could easily see teachers assigning a compare & contrast paper on those two books. (Starship Troopers puts more emphasis on how basic training works and the tactics of small-group heavy infantry combat and ends with a victory for the protagonist; All Quiet... puts more emphasis on the effects of war on the human psyche and the problems with re-integrating combat veterans into society and ends with a defeat for the protagonist.) Comparing this with the World War I home front sections of Goodbye, Mr. Chips might also make grist for several papers.

Especially in the United States, the average German of 1914-1945 is often simply thought of--when thought of at all--as the nearly inhuman enemy "the Hun", or simply as a graceless cannon-fodder obstacle for Our Heroes to shoot through en route to some objective. All Quiet... puts a human face on the average German soldier, and makes the similaries with soldiers on the other side that much more evident.

This is one of those books people are usually forced to read at some point, possibly when they're still too young or inexperienced to really appreciate it, but I strongly recommend reading it by choice as an adult.

Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon is one of the classics of the noir genre, and is the second of the books I've recently read that were published in 1929-1931. I'd seen the movie, but had never read the book; it turns out they're nearly identical, and each is excellent.

Detective Sam Spade's firm is hired by Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a beautiful but treacherous woman, to find her runaway sister. After Spade's partner is killed, he discovers that the sister is fictional and the woman's true motive is to obtain the Maltese Falcon, a golden statuette that has been covered with black enamel in order to hide its value. Also after the Falcon is Kasper Gutman, whom the woman and her partner had double-crossed. Spade is most certainly not a nice man--he's had an affair with his partner's wife, he has no problems with lying to the police, and as long as he ends up doing what he personally considers "right" (especially if there's also money in it for him), he's a big fan of the ends justifying the means.

The hard-boiled detective story is a popular genre (in fact, Spade is now also semi-famous as the origin of the "Sam Spade test" for character copyright, after Spade was ruled to be a generic detective, not integral to the story, and thus not copyrightable), but this gets back to its roots.

Pebble in the Sky is the third of Asimov's prequels to the Foundation trilogy. (I accidentally read them in reverse order, but since they're all stand-alone stories, that doesn't matter.) It tells the tale of 62-year-old tailor Joseph Schwartz, who, through a nuclear accident, is transported thousands of years into the future, to an Earth that is innately radioactive and therefore resources are so scarce that everyone on Earth is sentenced to death at the age of 60. He is subjected to an experimental treatment to increase intelligence, and as a result becomes the world's mightiest telepath, capable of reading minds and taking over another person's motor control. He is not alone, however, as the machine has also been used to create a cadre of scientists out to create biological weapons that will decimate the other inhabited planets in the galaxy, turning Earth from a backwater world that is ignored at best and actively segregated from and kept in squalor by the rest of the Empire at worst into the most powerful world in the Empire, and it is up to Joseph, a pair of doctors, and the daughter of one of the doctors to prevent this catastrophe before the Empire decides Earth is too much of a threat to allow to continue existing.

I read the Foundation trilogy (plus one) several years ago, and generally enjoyed them, though I often found them a bit dry. This one is certainly not dry, though what was cutting edge extensions of scientific theory of radiation then has since been largely debunked--to the point where Asimov felt it necessary to add an afterword to this edition explaining what seemed plausible then was something he no longer considered even remotely possible.

This was a fun romp, with some "By the Waters of Babylon"-like renaming of U.S. cities. (Most importantly, "Chica". It was fun to finally come across one of those sorts of stories set in the midwest rather than N.Y. or L.A.) The ending was certainly suspenseful, but it the suspense is resolved by a crucial event that happens off-panel with no clues that it's going on, and so feels more like a deus ex machina ending than it really is, or should be.

You don't have to have read the Foundation trilogy to follow this (though it fills in some background), nor do you have to have read the other two precursor books (they're unrelated except for the shared chronology of Asimov's Foundation stories--as shown by how mythological Earth's history becomes as the millenia pass between novels).

If taken as an exploration of the human condition through the allegory of science fiction, it lacks substance. If taken as a pulp-y science fiction adventure story, it's better than average and worth the read.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is the third book from 1929-1931 I read this month. It is also another literary classic that I studiously managed to avoid all through high school and university--and now I'm glad I did, because I didn't think it was all that good at anything other that portraying the decadence and party-hardy tendencies of young folks with more money than brains and no sense of responsibility. The book just sort of meanders all over the place, flailing for a point, and Gatsby himself ends up mostly sitting on the sidelines of his own story, except for the chapter where Fitzgerald inserts the complete backstory of the 'til-then mysterious Gatsby in a flashback told in a flashforward.

Yes, yes, so money doesn't buy happiness, or only buys illusory happiness and invariably leads to recklessness, illegality, or both and therefore unhappy consequences. Where's the deep insight into the nature of human existence? What has any of the characters learned or done to grow by the end of the story? Nothing.

I'm tempted to pull out the Cliff's Notes for this and see what all the hubbub is supposed to be about, because it apparently went right past me.

Unless you want to take a peek into the lifestyles of the nouveau riche and sometimes famous in the Roaring Twenties, I definitely do not recommend this book, and wonder if it's only assigned in English classes because the teachers were assigned it when they were students.

But at least now I can say I've read The Great Gatsby the next time one of those "100 books you should have read" memes comes around.

The Currents of Space is the second of Asimov's "Galactic Empire" novels. In a too-obvious parallel to the pre-Civil War Southern U.S., the planet Florina is ruled by "squires" from the planet Sark, and all native Florinians are put to work farming "kyrt", a plant that grows nowhere else in the galaxy and is used to produce amazing textiles. On any other planet in the galaxy, kyrt seeds sprout as plain, everyday cotton, so it is a precious commodity of which that Sarkites are anxious to retain their monopoly. Then a scientist from the Trantorian Empire goes missing near Sark just before he was due to report, starting off a chain reaction of events that leads to Florinians getting their freedom and the potential for cheap kyrt to be growable anywhere.

Once again, between when the book was written and when this edition was published, science proved Asimov's conjectures to be wrong, leading to an apologetic afterward of explanation, but this time, the now-incorrect science doesn't come up until the very end of the book and could relatively easily be replaced with something more theoretical and less disprovable but in a similar vein.

If you can get past the obvious pounding of the hammer of allegory regarding how evil it is to enslave people who are from a different place and look very different from their overlords, this is otherwise a thriller/adventure novel that moves along at a good clip most of the time, with a mystery antagonist whose identity is resolved with a twist that makes a lot of sense in hindsight, but isn't as foreshadowed as it probably could have or should have been and, largely due to the use of the unreliable narrator point of view in a few places, feels like it comes out of left field. The scenes of the protagonist trying to bluff his way through the overlords' city reminded me a lot of the action & tension in many of the old Flash Gordon comic strips, and in a good way.

Since one of the main characters is from Trantor and another is a "spatio-analyst", this one seems to be more closely related to the Foundation trilogy than the other Galatic Empire novels are, but Asimov explains everything you actually need to know here and the book is quite readable on its own.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most well-known titles in Agatha Christie's œvre, but it's one I hadn't read before now. (And it was first published in 1934, so it's close to but just outside the 1929-31 range that was this month's surprise link among books.)

Consulting detective Hercule Poirot is on his way from a case in Syria to another in England, traveling via the Orient Express train line. While stuck in a snowdrift in the Balkans, a man in the first-class car is murdered, apparently by one of the other first class passengers, and it is up to Mesieur Poirot to ferret out the culprit or culprits.

I've read several other Christie mysteries, though most of those I've read featured Miss Marple rather than Hercule Poirot. One of the hallmarks of a Christie mystery (as Neil Simon pointed out in Murder by Death) is the detective withholding critical evidence from the reader so that it's impossible (or nearly so) to guess whodunnit and how before the big reveal. This one is not much different (Poirot knows/guesses a lot more about each of the suspects than he tells the reader until the reveal, and the reveal includes a twist that sets this apart from most amateur-detective mysteries), though looking back I think there are probably enough hints dropped that the perceptive reader may figure out enough of the shape in the shadows to tenatively guess whodunnit and have a bare inkling of why, but that's about it.

Aside from frustration at trying to out-guess Hercule and work around Christie's chronic information deficit, I enjoyed this relatively quiet mystery that has turned into something of a snapshot of life in the early 1930s. The edition I have happens to be a British one (with the prices for Australia and New Zealand listed as "recommended but not obligatory") published as a tie-in to the 1974 movie version, and just looking at the cast (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Tony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, and more) and thinking about how the characters they play fit into the story has convinced me that I absolutely must add that movie to my "must watch someday" list.

Tomoe's Story is the 22nd collection of Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo comics about a ronin rabbit in medieval Japan. The focus of this one, as indicated by the title, is Tomoe Ame, the female samurai who is the protector of Lord Noriyuki, starting with a flashback story detailing how she rose to a position normally reserved only for men, and ending with a nearly wordless story detailing the tea ceremony she shares with Usagi before he leaves the province for more adventure as a ronin.

Usagi Yojimbo is always a must-read for me (and I recommend it to everyone else, too), and this volume lives up to that expectation of excellent work. It's not as good as Grasscutter, but little is, and it was a refreshing change of pace to have the focus temporarily shift to Tomoe. While there is some book-to-book continuity, most of the books are relatively self-contained collections of shorter tales, any of which can be enjoyed on its own. (In fact, it is sometimes amazing how much Sakai can fit into a single 22-page story, without it feeling either overly compressed or short-shrifted.)

Angels & Demons is Dan Brown's first book to star Robert Langdon, the "symbologist" made famous by the sequel, The Da Vinci Code. In this one, Langdon is called in when a scientist at CERN who is working on creating visible amounts of anti-matter for use in energy-generation is murdered, and the word "Illuminati" is branded into his chest in such a way that it is an "ambigram". (That is, it reads the same upside-down as right side up.) This leads to a threat to first kidnap the four prime candidates for pope and kill them in four churches in Rome, each branded with an ambigram of one of the four medieval elements (earth, air, fire, water), and to secondly vaporize the entire Vatican City with a quarter-gram-sized sample of anti-matter.

While he's apparently written thrillers before this, this felt like is was written by someone with some good ideas who's still practicing his writing skills, needs the guiding hand of a stern editor, and isn't quite ready for the big leagues. For example, the early chapters are riddled with instances where a character does something or has a thought that will be important later or will be ironically wrong later, and Brown consistently includes a sentence along the lines of, "He didn't realize then how important [or how wrong] this would turn out to be." I'm a big boy now, I'll figure out that on my own that it was important when it gets referenced again, thank you very much. The ending also bothered me a lot, as it smacked of having started the book without knowing the identity of the lead villain, and then, when he got to the end of the book and discovered he needed to show an on-screen villain being vanquished, retconning it to be one of the existing named characters.

Actually, there are three twist endings, not one of which is foreshadowed in any way, and two of which were nearly nonsensical in context, and all of which bothered me because of that:

1. The first villain-reveal, which made absolutely no sense (only the most superficial motivation to be the villain was portrayed, and it contradicts the character's past actions "on panel" in the book), and read like it was the original ending but was converted to a red herring rather than being removed outright as it should have been.

2. The second villain-reveal, which was almost as non-sensical. (No possible motive to be the villain was even hinted at before the reveal, and being the villain contradicts all of the character's past "on panel" actions to that point, and it turns what was to that point looking like a multi-layered villainous organization and worthy opponent of the protagonist into the one-dimensional ravings of a madman.) This one was almost saved by the subsequent reveal of the villain's motivation, but since it builds upon a flaw in the character's beliefs that the character previously showed absolutely no sign of having, it still feels whiplash-inducing characterization. This is basically the same problem I had with Asimov's The Currents of Space, except Asimov shifted the POV around, thereby making us privy to the villain's thoughts, but conveniently left out any thoughts of villainy, while here, the POV never leaves Langdon.

3. The ironic twist at the end that rendered the villain's motivations moot, in an attempt to turn him into a Greek-style tragic hero. Except it comes out of nowhere, and the character in question was already

I think the story would have been better if Brown had dropped more hints early on about the philosophical leanings of the ultimate villain and either dropped the red herring chapter all together or done more to make the red herring less sympathetic to the reader; and I think it would have been better yet if the chosen villain was just another good guy, and if the the cover story for the Illuminati was its real story. (Especially given the author's note stating, "The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.")

Now that I think of it, I was also a little bit annoyed at how hyper-capable the Assassin was compared to everybody else. Nobody is that capable of repeatedly pulling off letter-perfect murders, especially someone who seemingly gets his marching orders on such short notice.

I also thought Brown was--somewhat surprisingly, given the bad press I heard surrounding this and The Da Vinci Code-- relatively even-handed with his treatment of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church itself is neither thoroughly corrupt nor saintly perfect, but rather is portrayed at least as realistically as anything relatively central to the plot of a slight-future suspense/thriller ever is. (Including, in this case, the technological marvels of CERN--such as a Mach-15 private plane for which they can file suborbital flight plans and cross half the planet in an hour with no advance notice.)

On a side note, Brown seemed to be altogether too amazed and pleased with the ambigrams his guest artist came up with, calling them, in his words, an "impossible challenge", and going so far as to name his protagonist after said artist. (In general, ambigrams of words that don't normally have at least rough rotational symmetry can be difficult to design well; but an impossible challenge? Not hardly, especially for any artist who already often creates his own calligraphic lettering styles or anyone who's done Escher-style tessellations.)

So to summarize, the beginning was often trite, the ending was ham-fisted and needlessly whiplash-inducing, but the middle two-thirds of the book were an average thriller with a relatively fresh conceptual basis that thoroughly held my attention. Decent enough as a park your brain at the door thriller, but the veneer tends to crumble away if you start picking at it.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
Tags: books

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