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Garett Hornwood

Fourth Quarter 2019 Reading

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I finished Phillip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth. Overall, I liked it a lot, although not without a few reservations. It is a long book, I think significantly longer than any of the previous books in the world but it does move at a good pace. However, it is almost the least stand-alone of the books since it ends abruptly without any plot resolution. The book picks up about 6-7 years after the end of The Amber Spyglass, which is a long time for a young person and Lyra has definitely changed a lot in the intervening years, throughout the events of His Dark Materials I think she managed to keep a sense of optimism despite all the terrible things happening around her, but here she is much less sure of herself. She is often a less likeable character, but probably a more interesting one. I've always thought the daemons are the most fascinating part of Pullman's world and it feels like we learn a lot more about them here, in particular about how the mental turmoil of their humans might reflect in their relationship. It's also good to see a grown-up Malcolm a couple of decades after the events of La Belle Sauvage, and although plenty of things have changed over the years he does still feel like the same character.

Although the early portion of the book mostly takes place again in Oxford over the course of the book we do get to see a lot more of the world than we did before. The book does feel quite episodic with a lot of subplots as Lyra and Malcolm journey across Europe, but although the subplots sometimes don't have much to do with each other I think they do fit together thematically. Pullman includes his usual themes of fighting against authoritarianism, and includes some fairly clear (possibly slightly heavy-handed) parallels to current problems in our world, most obviously a refugee crisis caused by turmoil in the Middle East.

The thing I liked least about was a potential romantic relationship, which felt a bit creepy from one character's perspective and I hope doesn't come to anything.

I thought it was a good book, although it's so incomplete that it's a bit difficult to really judge it properly without seeing the conclusion.

I've now moved on to starting a series that I feel I should probably have read many years ago but never got round to - Neil Gaiman's Sandman. It's got a big reputation and it's been good so far.

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I picked up Dark Matter by Blake Crouch from the library. I'm a bit hesitant because it has good reviews but is described as a thriller. I get scared super easily and reading thrillers usually will end with me not sleeping for a few nights and leaving all the lights on (yes I'm a 30something grown woman lol). So maybe will start that one in the daylight!

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I finished A Little Hatred. It was really well written with some very entertaining characters but I can't help being a little cautious about getting too emotionally invested in them because it feels very likely it's all going to come to a pretty depressing conclusion.

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Finished up The Beast is an Animal by Peternelle van Arnsdale.  I enjoyed that immensely.  Kind of a blend between fairy tale and horror, with a bit more emphasis on the former.  Very good ending with a sense of escalating urgency throughout the book.

Started The Lesser Dead by Christopher Buehlman.  Only 15% in, but it seems solid so far, there is too much leaning in to the New York 1978 for my tastes, but it's right on the line and hasn't crossed it yet.  I do like the unease bordering on fear our "unreliable asshole narrator" experienced when he first encountered the titular characters.

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1 hour ago, RedEyedGhost said:

Finished up The Beast is an Animal by Peternelle van Arnsdale.  I enjoyed that immensely.  Kind of a blend between fairy tale and horror, with a bit more emphasis on the former.  Very good ending with a sense of escalating urgency throughout the book.

Started The Lesser Dead by Christopher Buehlman.  Only 15% in, but it seems solid so far, there is too much leaning in to the New York 1978 for my tastes, but it's right on the line and hasn't crossed it yet.  I do like the unease bordering on fear our "unreliable asshole narrator" experienced when he first encountered the titular characters.

I enjoyed  The Lesser Dead. It gets creepy later on. I do recall it hitting the reader pretty heavily early on regarding the setting. You definitely know your'e in late 70s NYC.

I'm currently reading Zoe Oldenbourg's The Massacre at Montsegur about the Albigensian Crusade and listening to Walter Isaacson's Leonardo Da Vinci. I'm not a massive art history buff, but it's extremely interesting learning about Da Vinci and his times through his works.

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Finished Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, a literary fiction set near Seattle that uses a first person POV to look at the poverty trap in contemporary America.  Very well written and an enjoyable and engaging read.  But I think the take-aways are less simple than the author would wish: clearly we're supposed to sympathize with the main character, the lawn boy, and endorse his hatred of the comfortable middle class who are his clients or who manage the nearby small businesses.  But this is a young man with no education (despite supposedly being quite intelligent), who drinks/gambles/fritters any money he gets, who obsessively stalks women like a creepy incel, who quits each job in a fit of pique, and who expects to have a comfortable middle class lifestyle from unskilled lawn maintenance work despite wanting open borders for any Mexican laborers to do the same.  And we really can see the poverty trap in play here, starting with an uneducated mother, deadbeat dad, deadbeat stepdads, and zero life management skills.  But is that really the fault of the oblivious clients?  Sure, they could pay him $20 per hour instead of $15 per hour, as he desperately wishes, but that wouldn't actually fix his problems, contrary to how the book ends.  So it's a good read, but more complicated than the simple panegyric the author intended.

Also finished The Traitor's Story by Kevin Wignall, a novel of spy craft set in modern day central Europe.  This is the second of his I have read.  Once again we have a cerebral spy with lower key stakes than a typical spy novel, and certainly the character is less out-sized than Ethan Hunt, Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, James Bond, etc.  It reads well and doesn't require massive suspension of disbelief.  Much better than the typical genre fiction found in airport news-stands.

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Just finished Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. 

This is up there with Paolini's Inheritance and Robert Jordan's Crossroads of Twilight as one of the worst books I've ever read. Firstly, it is extremely poorly written. It's little more than a loose collection of notes. Two defining features are Wolff's consistent abuse of commas and loanwords. 

Besides that, it's just sickening to read. In no small part this is because of the content - anyone looking too close at the Trump White House will certainly get that feeling of nausea. Mostly, however, the manner of this retelling is that it lacks self-awareness on a profound level. This is a book in many ways about a national (and international) reaction to a festering political climate, and it reacts to what it quite fairly calls a "revolution" exactly as an artefact of establishment "Swamp" politics would do - and with not a single trace of irony, though it is often called for. At one point, Wolff even describes the chaos of the White House as "having various anonymous hanger-ons and opportunists scurrying about". There is no wink to let the reader know that yes, he is one of those very unknowns. (this quote is my invention, but I am creatively paraphrasing what the line was as I can't recall and don't intend to open this book again).

 

I think I'm going to have to put this book in the recycling. I certainly don't want to keep it, but I think I'd be doing a disservice if I gave it to charity. Total crap.

 

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Just downloaded Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, because buzz. Lots of buzz. Necromancer shenanigans, supposed to be weird and fun. Might dive into it tonight. 

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I finished Dark Matter. It was entertaining and a quick read, but the writing was average at best (oh the choppy paragraphs!) and I didn't really connect with many of the characters. Also, despite everyone touting it as a "thriller", I did not find it to be so. It wasn't particularly tense or scary to me, which is good, since hopefully I'll be able to sleep tonight.

Next up I have The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

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Title in the US, Empire of Lies, title in the UK, The Ottoman Secret, which is a much better title, that reflects more accurately the chasis of the novel (2019), by Raymond Khoury.  Author's done a LOT of tv and film writing, which shows.

Alt history via the deus ex machina of time travel which allows the Ottomans to successfully take Vienna on third try, historically, in 1683.  As I already find issues with the historical record not being taken care of, like almost all these, I may not, likely won't, finish it.

 

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Finished Midshipman’s Hope by David Feintuch, the first volume of his Seafort Saga.  This is a slightly bizarre genre mash-up with 18th century British naval historical fiction set in a SF future of interstellar travel.  There is some convoluted world-building to explain why archaic hierarchies, social class divisions, manners, social mores, etc have all returned. But the isolation of interstellar travel at least does correspond to the isolation of early ocean sailing, although it lacks the interesting variation of weather and the detailed activity of seamanship.

The structure, character arc and plot are very similar to Horatio Hornblower, except with even more self-recrimination, self-flagellation and wallowing in the loneliness of command. 

It was a pretty good read and there are clearly several more available in this series.  I may try another at some point. 

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I finished Fallen by Benedict Jacka. The series isn't amazing but they're usually an easy read and entertaining enough. I'm starting to lose patience with it a little bit though. Obviously urban fantasy takes a bit of a suspension of disbelief to enjoy but the storyline has really gone far beyond were the idea of some sort of secret supernatural underworld really makes any sort of sense. On top of that Jacka has a tendency to insert things which he must think sound cool but again don't make much sense. For example I'm pretty sure none of the features of Hampstead Heath could be reasonably described as a ravine and what exactly is the point of an island fortress?

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slowly working through swann's way and against the day for a while, and should wrap them by year's end.  zipped through the third policeman and a little hatred recently, doing well with 2666 now.

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On 10/29/2019 at 12:47 AM, Iskaral Pust said:

The structure, character arc and plot are very similar to Horatio Hornblower, except with even more self-recrimination, self-flagellation and wallowing in the loneliness of command.

Angst and moping are integral to Nick's personality throughout the series. Nevertheless, I kinda liked it. BTW, could you please remind me if position of the sailors is explained in the first volume? Because - this is not a spoiler as it is mentioned in the first few pages, IIRC - middies had to go to space as young adolescents to gain immunity to cancer caused by the handwavy fictional radiation produced by interstellar travel, but simple sailors were adults. So, could they only fly for a limited amount of time, like with lifetime radiation exposure limit iRL? And that's why this navy never could have officers rising from the ranks? Or was everybody just OK with them eventually dying horribly?

Anyway, some of this stuff is from september:

For some reason I really got into anthologies and collections of short fiction and blew through "Running with the Pack" edited by Ekaterina Sedia, which was sadly forgettable,

"I have no Mouth, but I must Scream" and "Again, Dangerous Visions" by  Harlan Ellison - the former his short story collection of the best from his 50-ties and 60-ies output  and the latter an anthology of the most interesting and fresh SF authors of late 60-ies according to him. And I have to say that for the most part I enjoyed the copious and witty framework texts - both by Ellison himself and by the authors represented, more than the stories themselves. Some ideas and attitudes didn't age well, others have since thankfully become common place and were better written and utilised by later authors. Le Guin's "The Word for the World is Forest" is sadly still very much topical and there were some other interesting and well executed pieces, but on the whole I expected more. 

"Brief Cases" by Jim Butcher - entertaining Harry Dresden short fiction, with all the attendant quirks.

Spoiler

It really looks like he is setting up Molly as his eventual spouse, though and gearing up to axe Mab. Which, urgh. Is Molly really supposed to be a virgin? Didn't she have boyfriends in the past? And didn't whatshername the current Summer Lady have one too? Because it would make it even worse if she was "saving herself" for Harry. Also, if Mab is perpetually horny and the Winter Fae are particularly fertile, why didn't she have more kids than Maeve and her sister?

   "A Little Hatred" by Joe Abercrombie, which I loved. 

Edited by Maia

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4 hours ago, Maia said:

Angst and moping are integral to Nick's personality throughout the series. Nevertheless, I kinda liked it. BTW, could please you remind me if position of the sailors is explained in the first volume? Because - this is not a spoiler as it is mentioned in the first few pages, IIRC - middies had to go to space as young adolescents to gain immunity to cancer caused by the handwavy fictional radiation caused by interstellar travel, but simple sailors were adults. So, could they only fly for a limited amount of time, like with lifetime radiation exposutre limit iRL? And that's why this navy never could have officers rising from the ranks? Or was everybody just OK with them eventually dying horribly?

 

You have a good memory.  The basic premise is that education is now voluntary and largely restricted to the upper middle class, who often are home-schooled by tutors.  On top of that -- as you described -- becoming a cadet or midshipman in the early teens provides immunity (generally) from the radiation, otherwise people limit their time aboard interstellar ships to just a few years.  So there are very few educated persons available for officer roles, and those must leave their family and schools at a very young age.

This combines to create an improbable repeat of Nelson's navy: young teenagers are given roles as junior officers and a small cadre of officers on a ship have authority over a few hundred common sailors, who are mostly truculent plebs.  There is a lot of corporal punishment and a ridiculous, rigid honor code that tolerates bullying and abuse. 

It's an incredible stretch to claim that modern society would regress back to the mores and class distinction of the Regency/Victorian era, and somehow abandon or severely truncate education in an age of incredible technological progress, but the author obviously wanted to write Horatio Hornblower in space.

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Been catching up on my Witcher reading.  Read Sword of Destiny and the Blood of Elves .   Taking a break before reading the next one.

So just started The Fireman by Joe Hill which is kind of an appropriate horror story for this Halloween as I sit here in Northern California surrounded by wildfires.  I can smell smoke from the Kincaid Fire when I step outside, which certainly fits the atmosphere of the book where the whole world is burning.

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I'm reading Connolly's A Book of Bones.  It's as good as I expected and is a good book to be reading on Halloween.

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18 hours ago, Iskaral Pust said:

This combines to create an improbable repeat of Nelson's navy: young teenagers are given roles as junior officers and a small cadre of officers on a ship have authority over a few hundred common sailors, who are mostly truculent plebs.  There is a lot of corporal punishment and a ridiculous, rigid honor code that tolerates bullying and abuse.

Thanks! I remembered corporal punishment for the cadets and middies and the bullying, but not the educational situation. Frankly, in aggregate it makes things worse for the sailors than in Napoleonic era navy! Because not only did at least some schools for poor people exist, but also the sailors could aspire to reach the position of a bosun or even a sailing master (if literate, numerate and gifted at mathematics), but also they could apply their professional skills  in the merchant marine between and after the wars. Not to mention, why would you want lots of people who aren't highly technically skilled on a spaceship? Oh, well...

Anyway, to continue about my reading in september - october:

I listened to the audiobooks of :

"The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Graham, which is quaint and which I mostly liked, but I have to wonder how accessible to modern children it still is, since so much of the humor is going to go over their heads due to how our society changed (thankfully).

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho - pretentious claptrap  slightly redeemed by the excellent reading of Jeremy Irons

and "The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje which I mostly enjoyed a lot, except for the contrived ending and somewhat overwrought romantic entanglements. But it is beautifully written and read by Ralph Fiennes.

and also read

Circe by Madeline Miller - which was good, but not quite as good as I expected. I like the re-imagining of Greek and Roman mythology from female PoVs, but I feel that while working against certain negative tropes, Miller fell into others. And also, while the myths are somewhat contradictory in whether they treat the 4 children of Helios and Perse and some of their children as divine or mortal, they have the excuse of coming from different sources, while she really should have picked a consistent vision. Immortal beings don't need heirs, particularly not mortal heirs. Still well-written and engaging and absolutely worth reading, though.

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Started Kay's A Brightness Long Ago, but I'm also in the middle of a re-read of Kaiji Kawaguchi's plus manga, Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President.   

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