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What Are You Reading? Third Quarter, 2022


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I am finishing up Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith, which was highly rated by numerous reviewers when it came out.

My own reactions are less positive, however.  The author has two foibles that are pretty off-putting for my reading enjoyment.

The first is the constant references to Ike's relationship with Kay Summersby.  And I mean constant, as in no page within the middle third of the book is free of it.  We get it, Ike had a romantic relationship with a woman who wasn't his wife.  It isn't necessary to include how the setbacks in Operation Husky related to her love for him, or speculation about impotence on the eve of battle, or heavy-handed allegories about pet dogs given to women as gifts, etc.  Bleh, these were really unappetizing asides that added nothing to the history and bogged down the telling.

The second is that the author presents a blunted, back-handed sort of praise for anything Ike accomplished during WW2, while at the same time calling out in detail all the things he did poorly.  I am not looking for an encomium or hagiography of the man, but surely it is possible to relate an achievement without snarking about it and suggesting that it was lucky or the result of political connections or really an accomplishment of some other person.  All of us have succeeded in areas where the help and encouragement of others made it possible, it is how life works.  And not just Ike, but many members of his European staff and their activities are given a similar treatment.

Unless the author grew up in some sort of environment that placed Ike at the forefront of all WW2 achievement, and as a result felt the need to pull down such a monument, it was very hard for me to understand why these two sour notes were all through the major middle portion of the book.

Anyways, the biography that I was expecting to be enjoyable and refreshing turned out to be a terrific slog to get through.  

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Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood (2022) by Hilary A Hallett.

Author isn't the most felicitous writer in terms of structure, but mostly it's pacey, which makes it easily readable, at least if the matters at hand have any interest for the reader.  The author does do a serviceable job in showing us that Eleanor Glenn, Elinor Glyn, Lady Glyn's personal life and experience among the sorts of milieus depicted in her infamous, popular, lucrative fiction made that fiction possible. Above all, she was driven to the practice of professional novelist by her utterly useless, alcoholic, gambling, debt-ridden husband.

As she as born in 1864, it takes  2/3 of the book to get to the movies, Hollywood, Clara Bow and It (1927) -- It originally was a term applied to men of a certain sort, some wannabes to that quality of the moment would probably label the quality BDE.  :rofl: The Hollywood material, however, is as interesting as one would hope.

The side story of Lady Glyn's sister, Lucile, is equally interesting -- she was a fabulously successful pre-WWI   couturier; she and her husband were survivors of the Titanic, and her husband was accused of buying a seat in the boat for himself (we will have to decide for ourselves if this is what happened or not).

What was most illuminating is this woman, who, along with Anita Loos and Scott F. Fitzgerald, credited with creating the Roaring 20's, Bright Young Things, etc., was nearly 60 by then.

There is no mention of the Great Influenza, not even during the interesting accounts of Glyn and her daughters' work for the soldiers and the Allies' cause in WWI.

The photographs liberally inserted throughout the text, though only in black and white, and not on glossy insert paper, do confirm certainly that Lady Glyn was an exceptionally attractive and desirable woman, who wore exquisite clothes -- that even come through to our contemporary eyes in these period photos as exquisite, striking and chic.  More often than not, until WWI, those clothes were designed and fabricated by her sister.

 

 

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2 hours ago, Zorral said:

As she as born in 1864, it takes  2/3 of the book to get to the movies, Hollywood, Clara Bow and It (1927) -- I

Clara Bow was the “It girl.”  If ‘It’ described men reverted to the ‘It girl’ with this film. 

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I know.  What I didn't know was Glyn used it first to describe a certain kind of man, in England. She exported it to Hollywood and the USA, and then turned the gender around.  Another reason Clara Bow. the It Girl, was perceived as deliciously transgressive, naughty and salacious; this sort of attitude was traditionally expected to be a male-only realm.

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18 hours ago, Zorral said:

I know.  What I didn't know was Glyn used it first to describe a certain kind of man, in England. She exported it to Hollywood and the USA, and then turned the gender around.  Another reason Clara Bow. the It Girl, was perceived as deliciously transgressive, naughty and salacious; this sort of attitude was traditionally expected to be a male-only realm.

I didn't know that, how interesting.  Was on silent film kick a few years ago, not only saw many great silent films, but read much about them and the early history of film.  A good starter book for that era is The Parades Gone By written by Kevin Brownlow, a film historian who really loved silent film and it shows on every page of the book.  There is a lot more to silent and early talkies than Chaplin and Keaton, a lot more.   :cheers:

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I finished Rebecca Roanhorse's Fevered Star. I enjoyed the first book in the trilogy which did end on something of a cliffhanger. The second book picks up immediately after that, I did enjoy this as well although it does very much feel like the middle book in a trilogy that it is. It is a quick read but a lot of it seems to be moving characters into positions for the finale, in particular Xiala's plotline seemed to be a sequence of contrivances to get her to to travel to a location which will presumably play a significant role in the third book. Some of the other plotlines are more successful, two of the characters spend the book moving towards an inevitable confrontation but when it arrives the resolution isn't the obvious one and does something more interesting than just a big fight. The setting continues to be one of the strongest elements of the series and here we do get to see more of the Mesoamerican-inspired world.

I have now started Adrian Tchaikovsky's The Eyes of the Void, the second volume of his space opera trilogy.

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Time to stop being lazy and jump in before the quarter ends... yet again:

I have recently listened to :

a fantasy novella(?) "Made Things" by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which I enjoyed a lot - he never fails to come up with fresh and imaginative settings, likeable characters and interesting situations. Honestly, I am in awe of the man's versatility and imagination. Reading the prequel short story "Precious Little Things" on tor.com is highly recommended.

"Sea of Tranquility" by Emily St.John Mandel. It is beautifully written as always, it even uses one of the SF tropes I normally hate in a satisfactory fashion, but the way she just transposes contemporary experiences and situations a century or 2 into a space-faring future, without bothering to adapt them into something that would actually fit there, was really jarring to me. So, I felt that  parts of the narrative that happened in the past and loosely in our present/recent past were great, but the future ones mostly felt flat.

"Remote Control" by Nnedi Okorafor. A wonderfully creepy dark SF/fantasy/horror near-future tale about a young girl with lethal power that is set in Nigeria, I guess.

Then I read "Aspects" by John M. Ford and I... don't think that we were deprived of a classic? Despite what Gaiman says about it in the preface. It is a very long-winded story with lots and lots of architecture, clothing and food descriptions and constant streams of adoration for the main character from all the other PoVs. There are seeds of interest in all of this - the late 19th century-ish setting, sort-of parliamentary politics and attempts at reform that were set up to take central place eventually - though the important politicians, including the protagonists, are hereditary members and basically feodal lords, etc. But on the whole it was... OK and fairly forgettable.

I have been plowing through Michelle West's "Essalieyan" books since then, and I can confirm they are indeed better than her "Elantra" books, which I bounced off. "The Sun Sword" sub-series consisting of 6 volumes in particular is very good, IMHO, if one likes epic fantasy. It is not perfect - in the end she pulls her punches too much and she overuses certain tabeltop RPG-like "bad-ass" characters whenever there is a major fight, but it has the best characters, plots and cultures. It also can be read without the other books in the sequence - all the preceding events that it references come across as more interesting in brief mentions in "The Sun Sword" than written at length in "The Sacred Hunt" duology or subsequently expanded upon in "The House War" sub-series. In fact, I am not sure if I am going to finish that latter (I am struggling with book 4), since it focuses on the least interesting  character of the whole cycle, around whom things just happen because of rare supernatural talent, impulsiveness and a good heart*.  This is a huge pity, because there are so many better PoV characters from the "Sun Sword" I'd have rather read about and of course there is a somewhat intriguing overall world arc that got massively stalled because of where the author chose to concentrate her efforts for the last 8(!) books.

*It doesn't help that
 

Spoiler

Averlaan is simultaneously the best, most justly, wisely and mercifully governed capital of a prosperous country   and a hideous Dickensian hellhole where children routinely starve to death in the streets and can be murdered with impunity. All so Jewel and Co. can have their heartstring-tugging "urchin" background.

In fact, given the lamentable state of most of the city, apart from the Isle where the rich and privileged live, one has to wonder what all the prattle of Amarais having "built" something significant during her tenure in Terafin is all about. Or what kind of people the Imperials generally are that with literal embodiments of Justice and Wisdom ruling them, and embodiments of Mother's Mercy being very influential, that's the best that they could achieve.

Likewise, Averlaan is supposed to be the main obstacle to  demonic plans of world domination, yet everybody except for a small handful of characters is completely helpless against them when it counts. One has to constantly wonder why the demons don't just pop in and take over the joint while these characters are away. It is always very comical when supposedly powerful and capable people outside this handful, people whose actual duty it is to keep the country safe - like Sigurne, the magi, the Kings, the Exalted, etc.,  take the field with great anticipation and pomp... and achieve very little, an assist at best.

Jewel is the most like a cliched urban fantasy heroine, minus obvious romance. In fact, she is the less annoying Kaylin from Elantra. Thankfully, she does have some other female characters in her orbit and as important influences, but she is by now also surrounded by a whole platoon of devoted male followers, fully half of whom are supercilious, supernatural, immortal bad-asses who constantly berate her. It is ridiculous.

Also, I find Jewel's relationship with her den to be creepy and co-dependent rather than heart-warming.  And the prequel books greatly diminish her accomplishement in assembling and leading them anyway.

 

 

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I just finished The Last Graduate, book #2 of the Scholomance series.  I enjoyed the first half of the book as it felt like a natural continuation of A Deadly Education.  Then in the second half of the book, the pacing ground to a halt.  Reading 3 or 4 chapters worth of preparation for and discussion of the last day of the school year was tedious.  Even though I was frustrated by that chunk of the book, I still like the series as a whole.  I’m still planning to read book #3, The Golden Enclaves, as soon as it comes out on Sept 27.

I just started City of Golden Shadow, Otherland #1.  Given what I have just stated, this is probably not a good choice for me at the moment.  Yet, this is the only thing in my TBR pile that is drawing my interest currently.  
 

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I finished listening to Arcadia by Iain Pears and absolutely loved it. I can tell that it wouldn't appeal to everyone, but it was perfect for me! Next audiobook on deck is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Working on a re-read of The Hobbit that will segue into a LOTR re-read. Because why not and it was too hard to pick a new book.

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19 hours ago, Starkess said:

I finished listening to Arcadia by Iain Pears and absolutely loved it. I can tell that it wouldn't appeal to everyone, but it was perfect for me! Next audiobook on deck is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

 

I adored his book, "An Instance of the Fingerpost". Will check this one out.

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I finished Adrian Tchaikovsky's Eyes of the Void, the second book in his space opera trilogy. I liked the first book in the series and thought this was a good continuation of the story. Since this is the middle book of a trilogy it was never going to conclusively resolve anything but there are plenty of revelations throughout the book and the ending of this sets things up for the conclusion (although I suspect things are going to be resolved in a way that's different to how most of the characters expect). As well as learning more about the Architects who are threatening the future of humanity we also learn more about the various other alien races that humanity has made contact with, and (as might be expected from a Tchaikovsky book) those aliens are often much more alien in their outlook and biology than in a lot of other space opera series. In one respect I think the series is perhaps not as good as Tchaikovsky's best books, while there are some interesting characters in this there may be a focus on too many of them for any of them to get the same sort of character development that characters in some of his other books do.

I am now about to start Robert Jackson Bennett's Locklands, the concluding book in his fantasy trilogy.

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Long post because I’m meant to be revising for a short test tomorrow morning and naturally found a great way to procrastinate.

Finished Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy. The below contains BIG SPOILERS for both it and the Farseer books up to the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. 

Obviously, I found it very readable since I got through its 2243 pages in about a week. I'm still not quite sure what to make of it, or how much I liked it. It does have some strong similarities to the Fitz books, especially Assassin's Apprentice, and they were at the back of my mind for much of my experience of this her lesser-known fantasy trilogy.

Spoiler

Similarities:

·       First-person past tense narration, though we don’t get the musings of the present-day older protagonist Nevare looking back on his youth as with The Farseer Trilogy (TFT). Nevare’s journal is a plot point which is eventually allowed to contribute providentially to the happy ending; however, the story actually begins some years before Nevare starts keeping a journal. I don’t think the narrative ever prompts us to think that the text we’re reading is a tidied-up version of the journal, and the sense of events being ‘near past’ rather than ‘distant past’ (as with TFT) speaks against that – even if we might assume that one day Nevare will want to set the record straight as far as his aunt’s exciting chapbooks go.

·       Shaman’s Crossing (SS Book 1) and Assassin’s Apprentice (TFT Book 1) are both focused on the protagonist’s education, and both have it involve persistent abusive unfairness. We see a milder version of the same with Bee (Fool’s Assassin). Hobb does this type of thing really well, so much so that I wonder if she once either studied at or worked in a really poisonously corrupt environment. They feel like nightmarish case studies of organisations/societies fallen into a negative spiral. It’s odd how gripping it can be to read about this kind of situation, but it is extremely so, ͏at least for me ͏– it must appeal of the vengeful part of human nature that wants to see comeuppance doled out and the victims recognised and given reparations, or, as Hobb’s death-vulture-god Orandula might put it, to see the scales balanced.

·       Both feature a magic system that allows dream-walking.

·       Both feature a form of life-after-death that allows for the preservation of consciousness on some level: the kaembra trees in SS and the stone dragons in TFT. Both trees and dragons are ambivalent forces. They have the power to do good and preserve, but the trees are aggressively hungry of life, trying to consume the willing and the unwilling, while the stone dragons can take people’s identities.

·       In terms of structure, Fitz and Nevare are left at a highpoint at the end of the first books in their trilogies with their immediate conflicts apparently resolved in their favour and a promising future ahead of them. Book 2 then takes them to their nadir: Fitz tortured to death, and Nevare fleeing for his life after almost being killed by a mob, each alienated from the society of his birth.

·        Social status and acceptance are big themes in both trilogies. Fitz and Nevare enjoy a mixture of privilege and marginal status: Fitz is the bastard son of a prince, while Nevare is the son of an aristocrat, but of a new aristocrat, thus regarded as suspect by the established lords; Fitz possesses the ability to communicate with animals, an ability that’s regarded as a perversion by most of his contemporaries, while part of Nevare’s soul is held by a spiritual leader of the enemy he’s training to fight.

·        Both encounter societies different to their own, societies which are offered to them as an alternative to their current identity/social loyalty. Fitz meets the Old Bloods, while Nevare has close encounters with both the Kidona (a probable Comanche analogue) and more notably the Specks, a forest-dwelling people.

·        The need to either reconcile, suppress, or annihilate a second identity dominates both trilogies and powers much of the protagonists’ internal conflicts. Fitz has his wolf-side, while Nevare has ‘Soldier’s Boy’, the part of his soul claimed by the Specks, his enemy, that has assimilated their language, values and cause.

·        Both include slightly lacklustre principal romances. Not terrible – it’s just that the protagonists’ occasional protestations about being deeply in love with character x seem a bit unconvincing when they don’t interact with their beloved very often, or in very interesting ways, and huge amounts of their energy and focus are spent elsewhere. Fitz always seemed much more interested in the Fool (and Nighteyes, and Chade, and Verity…etc.) as people than in Molly, and of course it’s not Molly he goes on adventures with. Nevare has a more varied love-life than Fitz, and seems to have a bit of a mother-complex going on, but the dynamic of his (non-romantic) relationship with his cousin Epiny is probably his most real human connection, especially once the narrative leaves the Academy.

Differences

·       While TFT Book 3 and SS Book 3 establish a new, benevolent status quo for the surviving characters, Nevare is integrated much more into the bright-ish new future than Fitz: Nevare gets the family he wants, and it’s signalled that he’s going to rejoin the aristocracy as well as the military and reconcile with his father. He’s going to regain and surpass the social status he had at the start of the trilogy. In contrast, Fitz goes and lives in painful anonymity in an isolated cottage far away from almost everyone that loves him. His lover ends up with his adoptive father. Perhaps the majority of people still think he went mad and murdered his grandfather. Even taking the broad view of his three trilogies, Fitz remains damaged and something of a loner.

·       Events, and the protagonists, are both pushed around, and frequently stomped on, by an energetic power of fate. In TFT, events are partially influenced by the Fool who can see multiple futures and attempts to steer the present in the direction of the best/least harmful version, in so far as I or anyone can understand what the Fool was up to. SS just has ‘the magic’ which appears to be a sort of ruthless faceless Providence. It ends up achieving a sort of equilibrium between Specks (the tattooed forest tribes) and Gernians (western colonialists) but only after much chucking of characters under buses. Forest Mage, the second book in the trilogy, is possibly the most brutal one Hobb has written. The ‘magic’ has no identified source or guide; and yet it seems to have a purpose. Nevare is a tool of the magic, and it similarly uses and disposes of others.

·       By the end of TFT, Fitz has accepted the part of his identity that is Night Eyes. Although still engaged in his past as Fitz (he’s still writing about him), he doesn’t attempt to return to the society and person he once was. When he eventually is reacknowledged (in Fool’s Assassin), it isn’t at his own initiative, and immediately precedes the start of the last quest of his life, which takes him far away from court and ultimately kills him. At the end of SS, Nevare consciously reassumes his own name, and is ready to step back into the society of his birth, this time with more wealth and negotiating power. Although he was briefly re-integrated with his alter-ego, this union only lasted long enough for him to complete the purpose of the magic that has been directing his fate: he’s able to stop the Gernian advance into the Speck’s lands, and do so without any further bloodshed. After that they separate: the Nevare we end with is the Gernian Nevare. The indigenous warlord-shaman is sealed in a kaimbra tree with the soul of his mentor-lover.

I do wonder if the split identity at the end of the trilogy is Hobb’s way of signposting that the resolution we see, the peace between Gernia and the Specks, is temporary and imperfect. We’ve gone through the last two books with it becoming increasingly obvious that the two sides of Nevare need to join together to be effective. In the end, they can’t even bear to do it voluntarily when they know they have no other choice; their polarisation of belief and identity has become so great – they need to ask to be forced into it through the intervention of a shaman. And once their task is done, although their merger seemed comfortable for the brief time it existed, they fly apart again. I’m reminded oddly of Passage to India:

Quote

“Why can't we be friends now?" said the other, holding him affectionately. "It's what I want. It's what you want." But the horses didn't want it — they swerved apart: the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temple, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they emerged from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices "No, not yet," and the sky said "No, not there.”

Nevare goes back to his old enchantment with the glory of the military, despite having previously figured out that of both his selves, he’s not the one without the necessary ruthlessness to be a commander. So in that sense it’s a kind of regression. (Not a complete one: he’s chosen to marry a commoner with a dodgy past and three children; someone completely unsuitable according to the standards of his childhood and adolescence).

But it’s left open as to whether Gernia has really learned anything from its encounter with the Specks. The plains tribe we meet, the Kidona, claim originally to have been driven out of their forest home by the Specks, before being defeated again by the iron bullets of the Gernians. The most prominent member is killed by the protagonist in the second book, and the surviving Kidona characters, having already been decimated through a Gernian attack, disappear. Inter-societal conflict is 'solved' by the exile then near-annihilation of one party. The Soldier Son trilogy is certainly humanistic, but if not despairing, it's not thoroughly hopeful either. The death god Orandula is happy to play at being the good god but only “for a change”.

Obviously, the trilogy takes colonialism as one of its themes, and is very much inspired by the indigenous tribes of North America. I’m not qualified to say how well it does so. In Forest Mage and especially Renegade’s Magic, the third book, we meet a decent number of named Speck characters, and they come across as real people with emotional hinterlands, as individual as the Gernians, and not just types. That said, we meet them after the main Gernian characters, and – partly because Speck society is presented as being rather saner and kinder than Gernia, and partly because Nevare isn’t as hugely vulnerable there as in the Academy, being instead a person of status – it’s hard to get as attached to them.

One thing I haven’t touched on here, and the main reason why the SS trilogy will never be adapted for television, is that Nevare goes from being a slim, handsome young man in the first book to a very fat one in the second. Hobb introduced it skilfully, initially by bringing in the overweight character of Gord to show how his Gernian peers reacted to him, and foreshadowing how Nevare would soon be treated as his body changed in reaction to his partial reunion with his lost piece of soul. We also see how differently he is treated by the Specks who apply very different cultural values to body shape. This aspect of the books hasn’t got any less relevant in the fifteen years or so since they were published.

The trilogy has a tense, well-paced first book, a brutal and strange second book, and a slower, slightly emotionally distant final instalment. I’m not sure how I’d rate it against the Fitz books. It takes more risks than TFT; at the same time, the journey Nevare goes on sees him falling out of touch with most of the small regular cast I started caring about in Shaman’s Crossing, and the high death and injury rates meant I was reluctant to invest much in the characters who did appear.

I still haven’t read the Rain Wild Chronicles. Having listened to the audio books for the final Fitz trilogy and thus being at least partially spoiled, I’m not sure if I should or not. Any advice?

Edited by dog-days
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2 hours ago, Lord Patrek said:

Recently finished Weis and Hickman's Dragons of Deceit and it's by far their worse Dragonlance book ever. It could be their worst work to date. Definitely wait for the ebook sale, as it's not worth the cover price.

You can read my full review here.

I remember Legacy of the Darksword, another very belated sequel to one of Weis and Hickman's 80s/90s series, being absolutely awful. I'd be worried if this book was worse than that.

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