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williamjm

Third Quarter 2021 Reading

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15 hours ago, dog-days said:

I've been thinking of reading the Poppy War books. Is the protagonist intended to be awful, or does the author not realise how unpleasant she is?

It's intentional. Saying more would involve both getting into book 3 spoilers and my memory working correctly.

Also as other's have pointed out, considering some of the awful main characters from other series people love I'm not that surprised. Cnair comes to mind.

Did I spell that right?

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4 hours ago, Starkess said:

I'm honestly not sure. I thought it was supposed to be clear that she's awful, but reading some people's reviews, man, they LOVE her.

I did read that she is intended to be a Mao Zedong parallel ('Rebecca Kuang once described her Poppy War fantasy series as "what if Mao Zedong was a teenage girl?" '), so I'm pretty sure no?

Couldn't finish book 2, hard going, probably get back to it some other time, everyone in the book was some kind of evil..

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5 hours ago, Starkess said:

I'm honestly not sure. I thought it was supposed to be clear that she's awful, but reading some people's reviews, man, they LOVE her.

I did read that she is intended to be a Mao Zedong parallel ('Rebecca Kuang once described her Poppy War fantasy series as "what if Mao Zedong was a teenage girl?" '), so I'm pretty sure no?

Um, she calls Rin a monster in that interview you linked

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I finished Steven Erikson's The God is Not Willing. I think it's been almost a decade since I last read one of Erikson's books, namely the final part of the original Malazan series. The time gap in the world is probably similar with this book being set about a decade after The Crippled God. Although the implications of some of the events in the first series have a significant impact here, the biggest connection is actually to a much earlier book with a large part of the plot and several of the characters following up on the opening section of House of Chains. That book had been the main introduction to Karsa Orlong and that character does cast a very large shadow over this book and provides its title but does not actually appear in person, although I assume he will show up in the sequels.

In some ways this felt very familiar, as in many of the previous Malazan books the characters are a mix of Imperial Marines and some of their potential enemies. The first part of the book is spent introducing a large cast of characters and a number of disparate plotlines which will by the end of the book all be tied together. In other ways this felt a bit smaller-scale than the other Malazan stories, it is confined to a relatively small geographical area and short timescale and the plotlines are more obviously connected than has sometimes been the case previously. It's also a short book by Erikson's standards and while the plot takes a little while to really get going the final section is very well-paced and delivers a satisfying ending to this story. There's also some subverting of expectations, the Malazan marines of this book are not the same as in the previous series and this becomes more apparent as the book goes along.

Erikson's characters have sometimes been a bit hit-and-miss but I found the characters here interesting and there was some good development through the novel and it also manages to be funnier than most of the previous books.

Overall, it's perhaps not the very best of Erikson's Malazan books but after feeling some of the later books in the series were getting increasingly difficult to get through it is refreshing to have a shorter, more focused book.

Next up I'm going to start Joe Abercrombie's The Wisdom of Crowds.

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@Hereward,

Random question. I'm looking for a book about pre-WW1 Europe and the lead up to it, mainly from the British perspective. Got a particular book or set of books you'd recommend?

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I finally started reading Persepolis Rising. I've been waiting to read this for 4 years, so it feels nice to get into the story! Had vaguely heard there was a time jump, but was not expecting it. They're all so old now! Story is heating up and I'm just waiting for everything to go to shit.

I'm almost done with Ninth House. This is a really good story, and an excellent take on Yale and the secret societies (which I know nothing about and so I assume there is some grounding in reality here). But gods why do I keep reading books with limited POV from an absolute monster of a character?! It gets so tiring and it really detracts from my enjoyment of the story. Alex is...horrible. I really hate her. But I want to know what happens, so on I go...

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7 hours ago, Tywin et al. said:

@Hereward,

Random question. I'm looking for a book about pre-WW1 Europe and the lead up to it, mainly from the British perspective. Got a particular book or set of books you'd recommend?

Tough to choose. My favourite is probably Catastrophe by Max Hastings. It also covers the first few months of the fighting, before the trenches became permanent. The other contender would be The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. It’s excellent but not as focussed on the British perspective.

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2 hours ago, Hereward said:

Tough to choose. My favourite is probably Catastrophe by Max Hastings. It also covers the first few months of the fighting, before the trenches became permanent. The other contender would be The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. It’s excellent but not as focussed on the British perspective.

Catastrophe is such a good book.  I’ve just finished his book on Operation Pedestal, which is excellent.

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8 hours ago, Hereward said:

Tough to choose. My favourite is probably Catastrophe by Max Hastings. It also covers the first few months of the fighting, before the trenches became permanent. The other contender would be The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. It’s excellent but not as focussed on the British perspective.

I second The Sleepwalkers by Clark

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16 hours ago, Tywin et al. said:

@Hereward,

Random question. I'm looking for a book about pre-WW1 Europe and the lead up to it, mainly from the British perspective. Got a particular book or set of books you'd recommend?

You might also consider Robert K. Massie's comprehensive look at the naval buildup to the war in Dreadnought.

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20 hours ago, Tywin et al. said:

Random question. I'm looking for a book about pre-WW1 Europe and the lead up to it, mainly from the British perspective. Got a particular book or set of books you'd recommend?

ETA -- how did I miss this book has already been recommended by two other commentators?  But I did.  Dayem.  OTOH, this shows how good the book is, right?  :cheers:

 

The best history, or the most complete history, I've read on this subject is The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012) by Christopher Clark.

https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v35/n23/thomas-laqueur/some-damn-foolish-thing

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/19/sleepwalkers-christopher-clark-review

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/books/review/the-sleepwalkers-and-july-1914.html

For me, the most salient element of the book is the focus on what is usually ignored in other histories, which is how significant were events in the Balkans from the late 880's, which other histories focused on Britain and western Europe seldom talk about, but which is the platform for all what happens in 1914.  It is here we see the clash of established imperiums with the irredentist ambitions of Serbia and the Balkans, the ambitions of Russian and Germany to become part of the imperial club (not to mention Japan, while the failing Ottoman empire attempts to keep Serbia, Russia and France from taking what it still holds) are further complicated by Archduke Ferdinand being the heir to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

The book is very well written, and easy to read, as well as a deeply researched work of scholarship. The LRB review is excellent.

Edited by Zorral

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As the LRB review is so useful (from 2013), but impossible to get to without a subscription, and is nearly 6,000 words, I'm going to pull the first paragraphs, which are enough, I hope, to give you the sense of whether this is the book you want.

Quote

 

Fifty years ago, Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller The Guns of August taught a generation of Americans about the origins of the First World War: the war, she wrote, was unnecessary, meaningless and stupid, begun by overwhelmed, misguided and occasionally mendacious statesmen and diplomats who stumbled into a catastrophe whose horrors they couldn’t begin to imagine – ‘home before the leaves fall,’ they thought. It was in many ways a book for its time.

Tuchman’s story begins with Edward VII’s funeral on 20 May 1910. The king’s sister-in-law, the empress consort of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III, was there. So was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the aged Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. And so was Edward’s least favourite nephew, Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm loved and admired the British and they loved the kaiser: to him, the Times said, belongs ‘the first place among all the foreign mourners’; even when relations were ‘strained’, he ‘never lost his popularity amongst us’. Four years before Armageddon the German emperor was decidedly not the antichrist he would become. The book ends with the Battle of the Marne – ‘one of the decisive battles of the war’ – which ended the German hope for a quick victory and set the stage for four years of deadlock and misery.

Tuchman says nothing about Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the eve of the war, and nothing about the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts once it began. ‘The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war,’ she thinks, and in any case nothing much happened there in the period she covers. More surprising is that in the first third of the book there isn’t a word about Serbia. The assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 goes by in two sentences, one of which, a quotation from the oracular Bismarck, may be all she needs: ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’ would ignite the next war.

Why was this story so compelling in the 1960s? I think because at the height of the Cold War the world needed and embraced a morality tale of the sort Tuchman offered. It goes like this. In 1914, two opposing power blocs, each in the process of a massive and historically unprecedented military build-up, came to feel that it was more dangerous not to respond militarily to a relatively minor incident at the periphery of Europe than it was to do so. The precise nature of each stage of the July Crisis, or of earlier crises, is less important to Tuchman’s cautionary tale than the dénouement: the failure of the great power blocs to negotiate their differences and the catastrophe that this failure unleashed. For the generation immediately following the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hydrogen bomb that the Russians exploded in 1961, little was left to the imagination about what could happen if a mistake on the order of 1914 were made again.

John Kennedy read The Guns of August as a parable of the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] “The Missiles of October”,’ his brother Robert quotes him as saying. ‘If anyone is around after this they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace.’ Following Tuchman, he believed that European statesmen ‘somehow seemed to tumble into war’, because of their ‘stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur’. He would not follow suit. (Appeasement, about which Kennedy had written his undergraduate thesis, might have come more immediately to mind and had less happy consequences.)

Judging from his hawkish counsel during the 13 days of the crisis, Lyndon Johnson was less impressed by Tuchman. But when Kennedy was assassinated he too had the First World War in mind, arguing that what happened in Dallas could plausibly be as badly misconstrued as the murder in Sarajevo had been fifty years earlier. A comparable mistake today, Johnson believed, could leave twenty million dead instantly....

 

 

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16 hours ago, Starkess said:

I'm almost done with Ninth House. This is a really good story, and an excellent take on Yale and the secret societies (which I know nothing about and so I assume there is some grounding in reality here). But gods why do I keep reading books with limited POV from an absolute monster of a character?! It gets so tiring and it really detracts from my enjoyment of the story. Alex is...horrible. I really hate her. But I want to know what happens, so on I go...

Apparently Bardugo attended Yale so I imagine she knows a lot about the setting. I remember there was a note about all the secret societies and their famous members being accurate although she didn't know of any attempts to steal an election using magic. It was definitely an interesting setting, I've heard a bit about the Skull and Bones society (it understandably got a bit of attention when Bush was president) but otherwise knew very little about it.

It did remind me of Tim Powers' books where he takes some quirky bit of real-world history and wraps a supernatural explanation around it.

Edited by williamjm

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Thanks for the advice! I'm about two-thirds of the way through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and what's becoming clear is that while I already knew a fair bit about early 20th century Germany I know very little about Britain and France outside of WW1 and 2. 

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I finished Ninth House, my thoughts remaining largely the same. I really couldn't stand Alex. She was like the personification of the psychological phenomena where people think their own actions are either justified or due to some external cause but other people's actions are reckless and due to moral failings. I found it unpleasant. But I did enjoy the many layers of the mystery story, plus the uncanny worldbuilding entwined with the real. I found the ultimate resolution to be a bit pat (see spoiler), but ah well. Also this is apparently just the first in what is meant to be a running series. I felt the story was adequate tied up, and I decline the opportunity to witness more of Alex's character growth or lack thereof, so I probably won't be picking those up.

Spoiler

The final confrontation is the classic "villain sits down and tells all just for fun before she tries to kill everyone" type thing. And of course Alex defeats her by...wanting to?? This resolution was pretty weaksauce. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I get. Bah.

On 9/20/2021 at 1:25 PM, williamjm said:

Apparently Bardugo attended Yale so I imagine she knows a lot about the setting. I remember there was a note about all the secret societies and their famous members being accurate although she didn't know of any attempts to steal an election using magic. It was definitely an interesting setting, I've heard a bit about the Skull and Bones society (it understandably got a bit of attention when Bush was president) but otherwise knew very little about it.

It did remind me of Tim Powers' books where he takes some quirky bit of real-world history and wraps a supernatural explanation around it.

I'm not surprised, it's hard to imagine writing this book if she hadn't gone there! I was a bit surprised by an interview at the end of the audiobook where she said she had been a member of Wolfshead, though. The story is not kind to the societies...

Next up, I have a light read with the first in a Meg Cabot series called No Judgments. I'm also tearing through Persepolis Rising, which might be my favorite Expanse book?? It's very good, although it also falls into the "having to read about terrible people from their own POV" thing which I am getting so sick of, but at least it's broken up by a lot of other POVs, and I don't get the weird feeling that the author intends me to actually like the terrible people.

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1 hour ago, Starkess said:

I finished Ninth House, my thoughts remaining largely the same. I really couldn't stand Alex. She was like the personification of the psychological phenomena where people think their own actions are either justified or due to some external cause but other people's actions are reckless and due to moral failings. I found it unpleasant. But I did enjoy the many layers of the mystery story, plus the uncanny worldbuilding entwined with the real. I found the ultimate resolution to be a bit pat (see spoiler), but ah well. Also this is apparently just the first in what is meant to be a running series. I felt the story was adequate tied up, and I decline the opportunity to witness more of Alex's character growth or lack thereof, so I probably won't be picking those up.

  Hide contents

The final confrontation is the classic "villain sits down and tells all just for fun before she tries to kill everyone" type thing. And of course Alex defeats her by...wanting to?? This resolution was pretty weaksauce. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I get. Bah.

I'm not surprised, it's hard to imagine writing this book if she hadn't gone there! I was a bit surprised by an interview at the end of the audiobook where she said she had been a member of Wolfshead, though. The story is not kind to the societies...

I liked the book but I agree that bit in your spoiler fell a bit flat, it all felt a bit too contrived.

I remember reading some comments by her where she said she found writing the book to be cathartic, so I think she did not have an entirely positive time at Yale.

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This week I finished Adrian Goldsworthy's The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC which covers all three of the Punic Wars, with references to the five Macedonian conflicts.

It was a fairly comprehensive account of the century or so of conflict between the growing Roman Republic and the extended Phoenician power of Carthage in the Mediterranean through until the final siege and destruction of the city of Carthage itself.

Generally it hit all of the elements of the conflict and covered them in good detail in a single volume.  However, it didn't necessarily tell me anything new, and it sort of fell between Great Man history and Social Forces history, probably because so little information has come down to us of the details of Carthage and the political, social and economic forces driving their decisions.

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Beaufort Scales mysteries (1-4) by Kim Watt

Summary: small dragons team up with the village Women's Institute to fight crime and eat cake. Cosy fantasy crime has never been so much like a handmade woolly jumper. Gets bonus points for being set in Yorkshire. 

The author is completely open about the kind of books she intends these to be: funny, light-hearted, with the heroes and heroines facing mild and ultimately unthreatening amounts of peril. Consequently, I'm not going to criticise the books for being insufficiently exciting, or for failing to go Yorkshire Gothic. 

The writing is good, though not spectacular. It has an irritating habit of point-of-view hopping within scenes, which largely renders the author's attempts to build up tension void. Occasional pieces of insight into human behaviour are amusing, and the tone of the WI convinces, except that they're too nice. I suspect that the author's New Zealand origins show when she has Alice (the co-lead, probably intended to be an upper-middle-class Englishwoman) say "me either" rather than "nor I/me" or "me neither". Of course, Alice might turn out to be a Kiwi émigrée. 

I'm currently reading The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. The tone is disconcertingly similar. Elizabeth (Osman's co-lead) and Alice may be long-lost twin sisters. 

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Listened to this one in German so my impressions may be a bit skewed. I liked it, wasn't bored, and always looked forward to tuning into it. At the same time, I think it could have done with more variety in terms of characterisation. The p.o.v. characters were almost all decent young people, well-intentioned, but fundamentally too similar. When Shannon did break the trend with Niclays Roos, the result was satisfying. Truyde would have made a good p.o.v. character - also young and well-intentioned, but with a lack of judgement and impulsivity that could have added excitement to the narrative. 

I also feel that I heard too much about how devoted certain characters were to others without seeing that really grounded through interaction. The relationships weren't terrible, but they did feel a bit flat, a bit bland. I would have also appreciated it if the big villains of the piece had more layers - instead, they were about as deep as the average Dark Lord in less inventive fantasies. 

The writing was good enough to make me interested in what the author will produce next. 

Providence Lost by Paul Lay 

A good but slightly unfocused overview of the Protectorate. Strong on Cromwell's attempts to balance the polarised elements of his Commonwealth, and (intentional? accidental?) failure to create a system of government that could function without a monarch. Made me realise that I really want to read biographies of Tom Fairfax and Henry Vane. The former has floated around in the back of my mind as a heroic figure since I read The Rider on the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff when I was in my teens. 

Ravenna by Judith Herrin 

Comprehensive journey through the history of Ravenna from the Late Roman Empire till the era of the Carolingians. The reader of the audio book, Phyllida Nash, has a beautiful voice, a bit like Sian Phillips, so the book's tendency to meander and avoid much close analysis was soothing rather than irritating. I feel that there were way too many people called some variant of Theodore, though history rather than the author has to be blamed for that. Although a lot of the book made me feel that Ravenna was a bit like Ankh-Morpork, in that it was conquered by wave after wave of outsiders, who, after conquering, seemed to decide at once that building really big impressive churches was the best way to celebrate their victory ("What do you think, King Beardysword? A triple portico with a mosaic, or a triple mosaic with a portico?"), some more specific things stayed with me. For example, I had no idea that the first Holy Roman Emperor was created when the Pope refused to recognise Irene of Athens as Empress in Constantinople because she was too female. Being guilty of filicide probably didn't help her case either. 

Edited by dog-days

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The Death of Nnanji by Dave Duncan is the fourth book of The Seventh Sword trilogy.  Yes, the fourth book of the trilogy was written two decades plus after the first three, and having just finished the first three, the differences show up pretty starkly.

Now I don't want to say that this is a bad book.  It isn't that.  But it does depart from the original three in a couple of ways.

The book suffers from the curse of The Children of the Original Cast of Characters, and of course these children are heroic and achieve great things because they are The Children of the Original Cast of Characters.  At the same time, the book treats the original protagonist pretty fairly - he struggles to overcome obstacles, and sometimes he fails and makes mistakes, and other times he makes good choices or works hard.  So the reader gets this tonal contrast, as if the author was forcing a comparo between Existentialism and Determinism.  This is a significant departure from the philosophical conundrum posed in the first three books.

The original trilogy ended on a downer, as all the good work of the Original Cast of Characters appears to be consumed in a growing despotism at the trilogy's conclusion.  In this fourth book, however, the Original Cast of Characters either ignore or aren't bothered by the way the world turned out, which seems to betray the ethos of the first three books.  Twenty-five years was enough to make the original readers forget, I guess?

By itself, The Death of Nnanji by Dave Duncan is fine.  Just don't think too much about what has gone before.

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