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What Are You Reading? Second Quarter, 2023

Fragile Bird

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Finished the audiobooks of the Rain Wild Chronicles by Robin Hobb. I've now read all of her Realm of the Elderlings work except the short stories. 


Truth to tell, it wasn't her best work. Too much emphasis on love lives without enough structure to the plot. Chassim should have been introduced earlier with more internal Chalced politics to carry her story along; Alise and Sedric ran out of stuff to do, having effectively attained their happily-ever-after rather early; there was a shortage of effective antagonists, and Greft, a character with promising dramatic potential, got killed off early – one of the few who were, since at least for the protagonists and according to Hobb's standards, this series felt quite safe and low on hazard. I find myself wondering if this was because she began work on the first instalment having just completed the bloodbath that is the Soldier Son trilogy, and felt the need to put her author's cleaver into storage for a while. 

But it certainly wasn't all bad.  I liked a lot of the elements, and just wish she'd taken them further, rather than letting them diminuendo inconclusively. The dragons were fun; Hobb sketched a wide range of personalities for them without ever making them just normal humans. But I wish she had more explicitly engaged with the question of in what way basing your civilisation around the needs of dragons is different to basing your civilisation around the needs of a small human aristocracy. That said, Hobb's style is rarely about telling you what to think, or offering simple answers to complex questions. 

I enjoyed the descriptions of the journey along the river and the ruins of Kelsingra. The plot thread following Thymara and Rapskal's interactions with and possession by the ghosts of the dead Elderlings was both sinister and touching, yet it seemed to me that it could have had a second climax building on the scene in the silver well, and that the implications of the keepers' interactions with Kelsingra's spirit echoes could have been further explored too. 

Part of the problem with the books is that the end of the series is hijacked by returning characters from Liveship Traders: Malta and Selden Vastritt. They step into the limelight while the previous protagonists fall back without having enough to do. It's a little like a (much, much milder) version of the Star Wars franchise issue of everything being forced back to the Skywalkers, hamstringing the possibilities for the development of strong new characters and storylines. 

Looking at her blog, it seems that in March 2023 Hobb got a bad dose of Covid. She's also a carer now for her sister. I hope she'll write more Elderlings one day (perhaps the further adventures of Bee); if not, I'm grateful for what there is. 

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I read the first two of the Burning Kingdoms trilogy by Tasha Suri, The Jasmine Throne and The Oleander Sword

I quite enjoyed book 1, even if the pacing was slow; it introduced a really interesting world and some interesting characters, and hey it's just setting the stage for an exciting trilogy so a slow first half is fine right? Wrong. Book 2 was a huge disappointment- terrible pacing, the worldbuilding fell apart/stopped making sense, whole pages were wasted on over-explaining intra and interpersonal dialogs to (poorly) explain motivations, I could go on and on.

Overall feels like a romance trilogy with fantasy trappings rather than a fantasy series with romance elements - but the romance isn't even that good! And I - as a lesbian - should have loved it! Alas. Super disappointing and feels like I wasted too long just trying to push through. I should get better at dropping books I don't enjoy; life is too short. 

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Finished The Man with the Golden Gun. Thanks again @Fragile Bird :love:. It was one of the better Bond books even if the plot was super thin. Last up in the series is Octopussy and The Living Daylights. We'll see if they're anything like either movie. Both are short stories and maybe I'll bang them out in the next few days. 

Still working on Open and the Inner Game of Tennis. The former really is a must read if you like sports and The Life of Pi will be up next after I close out the Bond books.

And eventually I will finish Moby Dick, but man is that a hard read. I read a bit the other day and remembered why I stopped. 

Edited by Tywin et al.
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Why do I wait so long between posting updates?  I lose track.  But I do enjoy reading all the reviews here in the meantime. Three more of mine:

Worth Dying For by Lee Child.  Another Jack Reacher novel.  Good suspense with the structure: almost like a bottle episode for the first half of the book.  These are always well written if you’re in the mood for this kind of novel.

Star Of The Sea by Joseph O’Connor is a literary fiction that’s also a historical fiction and a murder mystery.  Set on a transatlantic voyage of Irish emigrants fleeing the Great Famine in 1847, my sense of patriotism wasn’t strong enough to find it interesting.  The prose felt plodding and dull, I’m afraid.  My Irish sense of poignant tragedy should have wallowed in the slow pace but I’m probably just dead inside.

The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy is a Roman historical military fiction, and the first in a series about Hadrian’s Dacian campaign.  Pretty solid offering for the genre and reasonably well written.  It opened poorly with some ADHD flitting between POVs that was so intent on introducing early twists as hooks for the reader that it just became a mess of confusion and contrivance.  Once it settled down it got better, although still struggled with jumping to each next event without really building between.  I’ll try the next in the series to see if the author grows into his style.

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Finished Scarlet by Genevieve Cogman, who completed her Invisible Library fantasy series last year. 

This is a retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel with vampires, making it Baroness Orczy fanfiction. I have distant memories of reading one of the original books as a teenager and being unimpressed by its florid prose and simple narrative; it was one of those cases where you feel that the idea of a good story was given to the wrong author, so I was happy to hear Cogman would be giving her take on it. 

And it was very enjoyable – a fun, light adventure focused on an English servant maid with a striking resemblance to Marie Antoinette. I got through it in a couple of sittings, hoping that Cogman would upset the apple cart completely at the end, but she didn't, even if she's not in love with the aristocracy as was Orczy. My impression was the Cogman is more interested in working with and against genre tropes than in doing a lot of serious historical research; she's definitely not attempting a Sansom-like engagement with the period.

Also, you know, vampires. Ones influenced by Terry Pratchett and Barbara Hambly, according to the author's notes: 'sanguinocrats' – not content to exploit the peasantry through traditional aristocratic means like taxes, they take their blood too. As with Naomi Novik and dragons and no doubt other alternative reality fantasies (Fritz and the Werewolves: the unauthorised biography of King Frederick II ? The Genie in the Cabinet Office? Actually this is quite fun, I could go on...you do have to handwave the question of why everything isn't completely, unrecognisably different. 

The prose is middling. It relies too much on common modern idioms for my taste, and not in the way that I felt that Cogman was doing it deliberately. But it's not terrible either. Mostly it feels invisible, which is fine. 

Anyway, this could potentially be a very entertaining series, especially if later instalments diverge further from the source material. 

Edited by dog-days
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Not sure if this is the right place for non-fiction, but anyway.

Just finished Donald D. Hoffman's "The case against reality." Pretty great book, full of fascinating facts, well written, and with an intriguing premise, to say the least. Its main theory is so challenging it's fun to try to talk about it somewhere.

Hoffman's main theory is rather simple : evolution selects for fitness, not truth. We are wired to perceive the world as required for survival and reproduction, and little else. Therefore, we don't perceive the world as it is, at all. Hoffman builds a rather strong case with many studies and physics tidbits that prove we don't understand jack shit about the world we live in.

But then he overstates his case and goes on to say that we really don't know anything, and that the conscious experience is the only thing we can be sure of. He does underline the fact that you can take reality seriously without taking it litteraly, but nevertheless argues for "conscious realism" as the basis for future research, i.e. considering that consciousness creates our physical world – and that a "real" objective world may or may not exist - we just don't know.

It feels like a reformulation of old ideas with the help of new data. While the perspective is fascinating, I find that it still ends up far from useful. I can buy that time and space are illusions created by our brain to make sense of our experience (and/or the objective world beyond), and that what we perceive as "reality" is the equivalent of a computer screen which displays only stuff we can make sense of. Unfortunately, "reality" still has rules we must follow. Gravity may be an illusion of sorts, but if I jump off a cliff, I'm still going to die ; whether the cliff "actually" exists or not (in an objective physical world beyond my perception) is kinda irrelevant.

While it's hard to disagree with Hoffman, the objection I have to his ideas lies with what is left unsaid. What conscious realism suggests is that we may have far more power on our experience than we realize : if much of our perception derives from evolution, we could decide to influence many aspects of our reality by questioning most of the concepts we use to think about it.
And the thing is... we're already doing that. We've been doing that for a few centuries, and I really doubt the results are positive. I would bet there are very few people on this forum who think of themselves, on a daily basis, as mere creatures of flesh and blood having to focus on their preservation and reproduction. We already define ourselves through our experiences, and already question many concepts that have been with us for ages. We also easily forget what we require to survive, because we're so focused on our social (or individual) reality. I'm not sure this is a great time to be arguing against "physicalism," when it's quite obvious we still have a lot to learn from the "world," whatever it may actually be.

Edited by Rippounet
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I finished The Scarlet Letter which seemed like it was going to be incredibly dull and predictable because it was so obvious who everybody was at the very moment they were introduced. Turns out (once again, not that shockingly) that stories have a way of working without compulsive subversion as well if one digs deep enough into the human psyche. It was an amazing, enriching and thought provoking read, highly recommend to anybody who hasn’t yet read this classic. 

I also finished two installments of Carline Taggart’s Her Ladyship’s Guide books that I’ve been missing from the collection for several years. These two little books, HLG to the Art of Conversation and HLG to Modern Manners were my last book depository order. RIP book depository. The former one was the more interesting, Modern Manners just screamed it was written by someone of an older generation as it was technologically outdated. Which is not a problem, but still made the otherwise super short read a bit tedious. Still, I’m glad that I have all the volumes. (Yes, etiquette is has been one of my obscure interests, I have an entire shelf of my bookcase dedicated to it) 

I do read other books too (beside the ones I post here) and even though local contemporary authors’ works are not  relevant to the vast majority of this thread, I do want to mention one. This book reached so deep into my soul and squeezed my heart so tightly as no other has in quite a few years, I still think about it weeks and weeks later. The title is Szívhang (which would translate to (fetal) Heartbeat) by Czako, Zsofia. I would say you do have to be a woman and from Hungary to fully appreciate the soul gripping ingenuity of this book, but I also hope it will one day be translated because the author would just deserve that kinda recognition in my opinion. I did immediately buy her other book as well. 

After all this I wanted something lighter so I read the first volume of Anthony Horowitz’s adult crime series, The Word is Murder. I quite forgot how much I absolutely adore his style of storytelling. (the Alex Rider series was probably my most favorite adolescent read after Harry Potter, I reread and purchased the whole thing in English as an adult). The Word is Murder is narrated in the most fascinating way, I loved the pacing, the characters, the tension. I’m anxiously waiting for the rest of the novels to be in stock at any of the local retailers because well… my heart still bleeds for bookdepository. 

Then, I listened to a thing titled Stolen Focus which is about how we lose the ability to focus due to technology, more specifically constant internet access and dependability via mobile phones.  It was okay. I had the feeling that this book tried to shoehorn the focus into anything and everything it touched. Certainly there are takeaways and Insightful observations, but narratively it didn’t do much for me. 

And then. I listened to this. 

On 4/22/2023 at 10:00 PM, Zorral said:

Jack Weatherford's work on the Mongols is terrific.   Plus, he can read, speak and write Mongolian!

You would love his Mongolian Queens . . . .

I did prefer the first book, because I found it a bit easier to follow due to the linear structure and smaller time period and the stronger storytelling. But The Secret History of the Mongol Queens was a great listen, incredibly solid on piecing together the stories, but also fair and transparent about what was ambiguous and provided more (or even more, I’m not sure) insight into mongol culture and society, which I enjoyed a lot. Footnote for HBO: If expertly written, it would also make for a successful several season historical series. 

I’m starting the latest (and possibly last, though we had thought this a couple times before) Alex Rider book. Haven’t picked a new listen yet, I always find it difficult to pick from my audible wishlist. 

Edited by RhaenysBee
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On 6/18/2023 at 3:11 PM, RhaenysBee said:

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens was a great listen, incredibly solid on piecing together the stories, but also fair and transparent about what was ambiguous and provided more (or even more, I’m not sure) insight into mongol culture and society, which I enjoyed a lot.

I don't recall if I mentioned this history or not -- I appreciated so much seeing this book appear.  It's told me what I didn't know, was never taught -- it looks at the Mongol Central - Near East invasions and conquests thoroughly within the historical context(s) in which it took place, and how it affected Western Europe as well as Central Asia and the Ottomans.

The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East (2022) by7 Nicolas Morton.

I also mentioned in the History in Books thread here, this historical fiction duology:

Cherezińska, Elżbieta; trans. by Maya Zakrzewska-Pim. The Widow Queen (2022) and The Last Crown (2023). The Bold One saga.

Highly recommended for those of us who have loved such novels set in Europe's North and East, after the end of the western Roman Empire, and in the early medieval era -- you know you are one of those if you loved Nicola Griffith's Hild, or Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles.

Here we have the intersection of the beginning of Poland as a state, Bohemia, the Rus, Kiev, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and England, paganism and Christianity, all connected via the family of and the figure, Queen Swietoslawa.

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I finished Furious Heaven, that took me a while. I do generally like Kate Elliott's books and I though Alexander the Great in space sounded like good idea but I struggled with it. The book itself isn't bad but the basing it directly on Alexander the Great didn't really work for me firstly because I had a fair idea certain plot developments were coming secondly I kept getting distracted trying to work out which characters were which historical figures so I wasn't really getting into the story.


On the character/historical figure front; Moira's Attalus, Marduk's Anitpater and Zaofu's clearly Parmenion. I thought that made James Philotas but on reflection it's probably Anas. I'm pretty sure Persephone is going to be Ptolemy.

Next up I'm going to read Martha Wells' Witch King.

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I listened to Magicians Impossible which was a pretty mediocre spy-novel-meets-urban-fantasy thing with a pretty limp MC and a plot that managed to be both convoluted and obvious. (SIMPLEX!!) I also assumed it was part of a series (which I didn't intend to read) because the ending was left quite open, but come to find out no, the author meant it to be one-and-done. I actually really like one-and-done stories so that's great except it does not read like that at all. Plus the ending is filled with someone being "killed" but oh wait not really! Like many many times. Bah. Anyway, the audiobook was good enough for listening to on my runs and I did finish it, so not all bad, but not great. Probably the biggest thing it had going for it were the action scenes, but I'm not that into action scenes so they mostly were boring and gory to me.

Decided to move onto my next installment in my Wheel of Time re-read, so started The Fires of Heaven. Sigh sometimes it's just so nice to read books I already know that I like!

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Just wrapped up Mick Herron’s Standing by the Wall. A collection of five Slough House novellas. Overall, an enjoyable read but The Last Dead Letter was truly enjoyable. 

just started Full House, the latest(?) Wild Cards offering.  Not far enough in to get much of a feel for it yet but I anticipate enjoying it. They can be a bit uneven, but been with this series since the 80’s and it introduced me to GRRM, so I will continue to be there for it. 

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