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ljkeane

Fourth Quarter 2021 Reading

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Somehow we're into the final quarter of 2021.

I finished Naomi Novik's The Last Graduate. I enjoyed seeing more of the characters from the first book but the book itself kind of drifts along a bit. It felt very much like a middle book.

Spoiler

Also the cliffhanger from the end of the first book is completely unresolved which is a little annoying.

Since then I've read Michael Connelly's Dark Sacred Night which was a solid crime thriller and a decent enough read. Which seems to be the case with all his books, they aren't brilliant but they're not bad. Now I'm starting Shift by Hugh Howey.

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Thanks so much for starting the Fourth Quarter 2021 Reading thread.  Imagine.  The fourth quarter of 2021 already!  Yikes!

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Posted (edited)

Agree with @ljkeane about The Last Graduate. Compared to the first book, it was quite slow and ponderous. There were also a seriously large number of characters - so many that perhaps they got in the way a bit. It also reminded my quite strongly of Uprooted in places. I loved the latter, and it's hard to really hold it against an author for recycling certain aspects of a story or revisiting tropes since they all do it, but would still have preferred different notes. That said, the book has a couple of  fine set-piece scenes that I liked very much, including the dramatic finale. 

Spoiler

I didn't mind the lack of a clear resolution of the cliff-hanger. In a sense, I think it was answered, as Orion's - character flaw? Psychological problem? Irresistible calling? - becomes obvious. He's a surprisingly successful teenage love interest - heroically messed up, and not in a Byronic way, just in a messed up way. 

Also finished The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, which was charming, competent and touching, if not particularly remarkable. Osman uses point-of-view in a more controlled way than Kim Watt in her comparable fluffy fantasy mysteries (The Beaufort Scales series), and makes more effort with the plot. It also aims for a somewhat more serious tone. At the same time, the depths the story hits aren't that much deeper than anything you might encounter in an above-average episode of Midsomer Murders. Very readable though. When the price of the next one comes down a bit, I'll certainly check it out. 

Listened to The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan. A book that attempts to look at the First Crusade from more of a Byzantine perspective, promoting the view that the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos did his best to help its success, and that later Crusader accusations of treachery and cowardice were trumped-up to justify the breaking of the oaths they'd made by retaining territory they'd taken from the Turks. Would have enjoyed this more if not for the occasional bits of the authorial voice getting a bit too excited about the Crusader army's toughness, its endurance of many hardships etc. Recall that I had the same problem with Rivers of Gold by Hugh Thomas in relation to the Spanish hidalgos and early settlers of the Americas. I know that my reaction isn't entirely fair - neither book fails to describe some of the nastier activities of the Crusaders and Spanish - at the same time, I seem to have a low toleration level for this kind of admiration, however far back in history and perhaps different to people today its objects are. 

I've been wondering in an unconstructive way about Byzantium while walking to work. Namely, why it seems to have so little influence/so little presence in modern culture, especially in terms of literature? Byzantium makes me think of a few poems of Cavafy, and Yeats's "That is no country for old men..."  Many classical manuscripts came to us via the Empire, but it doesn't seem to have given birth to much in the way of famous writers or poets. The only one I could name if put on the spot without having access to Google is Anna Komnene. Nothing compared to the Athenian playwrights and philosophers, or the poets and historians of Rome. 

Edited by dog-days

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, dog-days said:

it doesn't seem to have given birth to much in the way of famous writers or poets. 

That's because the arc of that empire came into being when the Roman empire's arc was falling, and with it, the signature of the arts and humanities, learning and writing and urbanity -- including the expectation of holding public administrative office, became martial instead.  Even into the clothing they chose to wear.  A Roman gentleman held public office, but he was also leisured.  A Roman gentleman prized the life of the urbis.  He loved the theater.  Possessing the qualities that allowed for he himself to write, to memorize poetry, know histories, keep up long, long-distance networks of correspondence -- these were the signatures of status and the power elite. By the end of the 4th century and through the 5th, these all gave way to the signatures of martial competence.  No longer did the gentleman go togate, but wore army dress instead.  The empire in the east came into being at this time.  Plus it was obsessed by feuding Christian doctrine and practice, not helped by Justinian's drive to uniformity.  All that energy, in this post Christian time of having become the state, went there. And into chariot competition.  I guess?

 

 

Edited by Zorral

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I can't find the thread now, but someone recommended Robert Harris' The Second Sleep - maybe Zorral?

I got through four chapters, and between the rainy weather, the uninteresting characters, and the post-Apocalyptic storyline, I set it aside.  Maybe I will take it up again later, but it wasn't grabbing me.

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19 hours ago, Zorral said:

That's because the arc of that empire came into being when the Roman empire's arc was falling, and with it, the signature of the arts and humanities, learning and writing and urbanity -- including the expectation of holding public administrative office, became martial instead.  Even into the clothing they chose to wear.  A Roman gentleman held public office, but he was also leisured.  A Roman gentleman prized the life of the urbis.  He loved the theater.  Possessing the qualities that allowed for he himself to write, to memorize poetry, know histories, keep up long, long-distance networks of correspondence -- these were the signatures of status and the power elite. By the end of the 4th century and through the 5th, these all gave way to the signatures of martial competence.  No longer did the gentleman go togate, but wore army dress instead.  The empire in the east came into being at this time.  Plus it was obsessed by feuding Christian doctrine and practice, not helped by Justinian's drive to uniformity.  All that energy, in this post Christian time of having become the state, went there. And into chariot competition.  I guess?

Sounds like a convincing hypothesis to me! The mid & late Roman Empire certainly had a falling off in the quality of literary output, unless Christian tracts are what does it for you. (That's a generalising you, not a you-Zorral). I'm glad they did have some fun in the Byzantine Empire with chariot racing, and all their energies didn't go into warring, or into smashing icons, then putting icons together again. 

Re: Robert Harris. He's my go-to aeroplane author in that I find his novels gripping as I read them, but they always seem to require less of the reader than they could somehow. A brisk plot with a dose of atmosphere tends to be prioritised over character and theme. Surprised he's written a book that's actually boring though. 

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40 minutes ago, dog-days said:

The mid & late Roman Empire certainly had a falling off in the quality of literary output,

This was something I admired in McCullough's Rome novels: the importance of the correspondence among the characters she features.  We receive the information about events where the correspondents are located the way they do, via their letters.  Those who are not in Rome beg in every letter to 'write me everything that is happening.'  Even does Caesar, when in Bithnya and in Gaul. From this the readers learn to understand how important Caesar knew it was that he stay in contact with all the important people in Rome via correspondence -- and why he wrote and published in Rome, regularly, the accounts of his Gaulish campaigns.  No one in the Eastern Empire did this. But then, few administrative offices were held by by Constantinople's rich and powerful, as had been the case in the Roman empire. Those posts were held by a professional administrative class, who were either churchmen, or the ever-growing and powerful palace eunuchs. Literature was not their occupation either for fun or professional status.

As for the chariot races as fun -- well they were heavily politicized factions that supported and were supported by the religious and political factions of the palace.  So riots happened at the races frequently and spread throughout the city.

 

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I enjoyed Greg Egan's The Book of All Skies quite a lot.  It's rather similiar to a lot of recent Egan (particularly Dichronauts and the Orthogonal trilogy) in that only so much of the book is concerned with trivia such as plot and characterisation, leaving plenty of space for the protagonists to lecture each other about the non-standard physics of the universe they live in.  In this case (spoilers, I guess, since figuring this out is part of the fun of the book): 

Spoiler

The world the protagonists live in comprises a series of different 'lands', each connected by inter-dimensional portals that change the topology of the surrounding space.  And yes, obviously Egan's website contains multiple pages outlining how things like Newtonian gravity would work in such a universe (which is sort of a major plot point, although you don't really need to understand anything beyond 'space is weird and travelling through it is dangerous' to follow the narrative).

My only real criticism is that the ending of the book feels pretty jarringly abrupt (to the extent the book has a real plot, there are a couple of key elements that are just ... not ever resolved, unless I missed something vital somewhere).

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Posted (edited)

Just finished reading Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1) by Yoon Ha Lee. I didn't like it, which is surprising because the summary and the premise of the story seemed like it was something I would absolutely love. Unfortunately, it wasn't great.

Despite all the action, I was totally bored of the entire book throughout the whole time that I was reading. I had to force myself to finish it.

One thing that I felt worked against it was that there was no real tension. I never felt at any moment that the main character was in any real danger of failing.

The first chapter was exceedingly confusing. Now, I'm no stranger to weird new terminologies, but it was over the top. Worse, I felt as though all of the pseudoscientific terms were just gibberish pasted over magical shenanigans, not real science. In addition, there was a lot of talk about mathematics and calculations, but nothing ever came of it nor was it ever really explored. It's just something like "she calculated the optimal formation" and that was that.

Spoiler

The ending was supposed to be a plot twist or something, but I already knew it was going to happen.

Even though I've complained a lot about it, I do appreciate the fact that this book is trying hard to be new and epic. Maybe the next books will be better? I generally do like the setting, and I'm open to perhaps reading more books. Maybe I'll pick up the last book just to find out what happens in the end.

Edited by Gigei
grammar

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9 hours ago, Gigei said:

I felt as though all of the pseudoscientific terms were just gibberish pasted over magical shenanigans, not real science.

 

I can't really say much to the other criticisms you have- I disagree, I think the book and series is brilliant and thought the first chapter was a masterstroke in demonstrating the new terminology by what was happening when it was applied, without having to exposit directly, but that's all a matter of taste- but this seems an odd one given the book isn't even vaguely trying to pretend it's real science. The mathy framing is important because it's important to the story that the characters have to be working in a rigid system and be able to do mathy things to apply the, yes, essentially magic, but it's no more important for us to know than it is to be able to explain how the Force works in Star Wars.

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10 hours ago, Gigei said:

Even though I've complained a lot about it, I do appreciate the fact that this book is trying hard to be new and epic. Maybe the next books will be better? I generally do like the setting, and I'm open to perhaps reading more books. Maybe I'll pick up the last book just to find out what happens in the end.

I did like the series but if you didn't get on with the first book then I'm not sure the other two in the trilogy are going to change your mind.

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I liked The Machineries of Empire series, but agree the first book throws a lot at you and takes some time to digest.   The rest of the books seemed more accessible, not sure if it was because I had already learned the enough from the first book to understand what was going on or Lee assumed that once the underlying systems and concepts of the universe were explained, they could then just be accepted and no longer focused on.   

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Finished Poe's Eureka. A fair number of interesting guesses (he thought the centre of the galaxy featured a massive non-luminous star), but basically the sort of work where you really wonder about the author's drug consumption.

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20 hours ago, polishgenius said:

I can't really say much to the other criticisms you have- I disagree, I think the book and series is brilliant and thought the first chapter was a masterstroke in demonstrating the new terminology by what was happening when it was applied, without having to exposit directly, but that's all a matter of taste- but this seems an odd one given the book isn't even vaguely trying to pretend it's real science. The mathy framing is important because it's important to the story that the characters have to be working in a rigid system and be able to do mathy things to apply the, yes, essentially magic, but it's no more important for us to know than it is to be able to explain how the Force works in Star Wars.

It's weird. I really thought I'd like it and there were so many good reviews, but it just never caught my attention enough.

20 hours ago, williamjm said:

I did like the series but if you didn't get on with the first book then I'm not sure the other two in the trilogy are going to change your mind.

Hmmm.

19 hours ago, Leofric said:

I liked The Machineries of Empire series, but agree the first book throws a lot at you and takes some time to digest.   The rest of the books seemed more accessible, not sure if it was because I had already learned the enough from the first book to understand what was going on or Lee assumed that once the underlying systems and concepts of the universe were explained, they could then just be accepted and no longer focused on.   

The series is finished, right? How good is the ending?

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1 hour ago, Gigei said:

The series is finished, right? How good is the ending?

 

It's finished, but it's an odd one, coz the trilogy has a perfectly good ending and you wouldn't really know you're missing anything- but then you read the short story collection, Hexarchate Stories, and in there is a novella that's essentially an extra ending for the series, one that pulls together a few threads more but also sets up further stories in the world. I liked it a lot, but then I liked the series from the off.

 

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1 hour ago, polishgenius said:

 

It's finished, but it's an odd one, coz the trilogy has a perfectly good ending and you wouldn't really know you're missing anything- but then you read the short story collection, Hexarchate Stories, and in there is a novella that's essentially an extra ending for the series, one that pulls together a few threads more but also sets up further stories in the world. I liked it a lot, but then I liked the series from the off.

 

Thanks for the input. I'll probably try the last book just to find out the ending. :read: I haven't got much to read anyway.

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I haven’t posted an update in quite a while, so lots of titles to mention and I’ll keep the summaries short.

I finished my reread of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle with The Confusion and The System Of The World.  Still good but it really dragged on too long.  I won’t reread again.

Northern Heist by Richard O’Rawe is a good heist novel set in Belfast.  It feels realistic because it was written by an actual convicted bank robber.  I felt conflicted about the author benefiting from his criminal past.

The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira is a non-fiction history of the evolution of the theory of relativity.  Very good.

Choose Me by Tess Gerritsen was a detective novel that didn’t really resonate with me.  I dropped it.

Palm Beach Finland was another quirky and funny crime novel by Antti Tuomainen.  I have enjoyed all of his so far.

The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollack is an unusual gothic novel about serial killers in Appalachia in the 1950s-1960s.  Good for an autumn read.

Anathem completed my reread over the past few months of Neal Stephenson’s best (IMO) five novels.  The world shifting (it’s not entirely world building) and the mash up of philosophy, metaphysics and hard science are so good, even if it is a bit too long, has underwhelming characters and ultimately picks a quasi-religious approach to a poly cosmos.

Turn A Blind Eye was my first experience of Jeffrey Archer, who I have heard about for decades.  It was bland and trite.  I dropped it.

I started The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo, the fifth in his Harry Hole series, and then remembered part way through why I had dropped this series of Scandinavian noir.  The corrupt insider antagonist is too much an improbable plot device to provide the utmost frustration and tribulation for the hero.  It’s very rare that this type of antagonist can really work (Sergeant Hakeswill tormenting Sharpe is the only good example I can think of).

The Royal Baths Murder is the fourth in JR Ellis’ Yorkshire series of cosy locked-room murder mysteries.  But I’m tired of the too-cosy sensibility.  I won’t read any further in this series.

Pronto by Elmore Leonard is the first Raylen Givens novel.  It’s ok.  You can see why the character was optioned for a very good TV series.  But Leonard’s prose and dialogue always feels rudimentary, and the attitudes of his characters feel very dated.

And most recently I read King Of The Bosporus by Christian Cameron, the fourth in his Tyrant series of historical fiction about the power vacuum after the death of Alexander.  Quite good again.

 

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