What an odd damn holiday. It was the sort of thing the phrase "mixed bag" was invented to describe, or to put it another way, it was rather like the little girl: when it was good, it was very good, but when it was bad, it was awful. Which, for these purposes, boils down to: I didn't have much time to read. (I also didn't have net access, so this is going to be a long entry [ed.: split up for import into MT].)
I did read one of my Christmas presents, Terry Pratchett's The Last Hero, beautifully and richly illustrated by Paul Kidby (not to be confused with Josh Kirby, the recently-deceased artist who did many of the UK Discworld covers). This is a much better story than the other recent Discworld book, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, though I don't think it's because this one actually is about the end of the world (again). This time, the end is nigh because Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde (a handful of very old, and therefore very skilled, heroes, last seen conquering the Agatean Empire), have decided that it's time to return fire to the gods—with interest.
A mix of familiar characters from Ankh-Morpork are drafted to stop him, leading to such conversations as this one:
'What is that on your badge, Captain Carrot?'
'Mission motto, sir,' said Carrot cheerfully. 'Morituri Nolumus Mori. Rincewind suggested it.'
'I imagine he did,' said Lord Vetinari, observing the wizard coldly. 'And would you care to give us a colloquial translation, Mr Rincewind?'
'Err . . . ' Rincewind hestitated, but there really was no escape. 'Er . . . roughly speaking, it means, "We who are about to die don't want to," sir.'
There are moving bits among the silliness, and a nice clean plot, too. The book is fairly short—160 lavishly-illustrated, coffee-table-sized pages—but just the right length for the story. What's more, the detailed illustrations add another layer, one that could not adquately be conveyed by text alone; just the picture of Death with the kitten (link to postcard page) is priceless, but the painting of the swamp dragons and the excerpts from Leonard's notebooks are great, too ("Clothing of the Empty Void: Mk 1.0 Rincewind. Converted pearl Diving Helmet with Simple Pressure Gauge (if eyeholes turn red, head has exploded)."). This is great stuff, though probably not for those new to Discworld. (Try Small Gods for that.)
[*] If you go to "Originals," you can see a few more pictures from the book. I didn't link straight to that page because it, like much of the rest of the site, has annoying and unnecessary Java applets. (And I won't link to the site's front page because the navigation options from that end are truly terrible.)
After finishing The Last Hero, I picked up After the King, edited by Martin Greenberg; it has a Pratchett short story, "Troll Bridge," that also features Cohen the Barbarian, though it's not clear to me if it's supposed to be canonical Discworld. It's a great story and works with some themes similar to The Last Hero's.
Since After the King has some other very fine stories, and since anthologies are good for short-attention-span environments like hospital and airport waiting rooms (to pick two examples completely not at random), I ended up reading most of the rest of it over vacation. (There are a few stories that I have no interest in reading, and accordingly have never read; I don't really know why.) Far and away my favorite is Emma Bull's "Silver or Gold," a beautiful and wise fairy tale that's possibly the best thing Bull's published to date (high praise; she's one of my favorite writers). My second favorite is Patricia McKillip's "The Fellowship of the Dragon," which makes me wonder if I'm not best off reading her in short story form; the only novel of hers I've liked so far is The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (which I loved), but I thought "The Lion and the Lark" was great (published in The Armless Maiden and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Ninth Edition). Other stories I particuarly enjoyed were Peter Beagle's "The Naga," Jane Yolen's "Winter's King," and Mike Resnick's "Revolt of the Sugar Plum Fairies."
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After the King has recently been re-released as a trade paperback, which is unsurprising because it's an anthology of stories "in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien," and everything Tolkien is being re-released because of the movie. I did manage to see Fellowship for the second time over vacation; I got even more out of this viewing, but not all of it good. I continued to appreciate the quality of the acting, the evident care that had gone into everything, and the references to the books ("A shortcut to what?" "Mushrooms!"); the second viewing allowed me to notice more of the details that underlie these virtues of the film (and see the scene that I'd missed when I ran to the bathroom the first time).
But while I still enjoyed it greatly, a few things bothered me more. One of them, Gandalf & Saruman's confrontation, seemed basically a one-shot deal, and so may not affect the next installments. But, upon reflection, my dissatisfaction with Galadriel's portrayal (which bothered me right away) extends to all of Lothlorien's treatment. I think something subtle but important is lost by the movie's change in tone—though I'm not sure how much this will affect whatever parts of the story that make it into the second and third movies. At any rate, I still loved the movie, am deeply impressed and relieved at the quality of the adaptation, and can't wait to see the next one (and the one after that); but now that I've got a little objectivity back, it's not quite as fabulous as I'd thought, is all.
(Oh, and I nearly forgot: did I really say that the Harry Potter movie turned Dumbledore into a Gandalf clone by sucking all the whimsy out of the role? Shame on me. Gandalf, as Ian McKellen's brilliant performance reminded me, has more whimsy—and sense, and power, and strength—in his big toe than Dumbledore has in his whole body.)
As it was an odd damn holiday, it was an odd damn year, too. However, I shall refrain from summing up anything other than this book log, since you can find dozens of such stories elsewhere. On the numbers front, a quick count shows seventy-six different things read listed in the index since the beginning of August; some of these are short stories or skimmed books, but other are multi-novel omnibuses, so take that as you will. (I take it as, "Geez, that is a lot.") It turns out there are only ten books on both Chad's book log and mine (eleven things, counting the Fellowship movie); I thought it would be more, probably because many of them are ones the other has read, just not within the relevant time frame. (However, my living quarters are much less cluttered than Chad's, since I get a lot of things out of the library.)
A lot of my favorite authors haven't been mentioned yet; I think the book log has been motivating me to re-read less, so people like Bujold and Brust, who put out books just before I started this, haven't turned up yet. (It's traditional for me to re-read Bujold during finals, when I'm particularly stressed, though, so just wait.) Overall, keeping this has been a good idea; it's forced me out of my previous bad habit of finishing some books without really forming any impression of them, or thinking much about them. The time I spend on it varies, depending on how much I have to say about the book in question, but it's not more burdensome than Usenet (well, perhaps a little more so, because I do tend to pay slightly more attention to my writing here). If any of my five readers have been contemplating keeping a book log of their own, I recommend it.
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Another nice lesuirely Ellis Peters mystery, Monk's Hood, the third Brother Cadfael novel. The civil war has moved away from Shrewsbury, and during the year-end business, a guest of the abbey is poisoned with one of Cadfael's potions. We get to see some people from Cadfael's past during this one, and life in the monastery undergoes some changes, and I figured out who did it pretty early on, but I can't say I was terribly bothered by that. I do envy Cadfael his serene Christmas, though.
Ellis Peters's fourth Brother Cadfael book, St. Peter's Fair, goes back to the intrigues surrounding the 12th-century civil war between Empress Maud and King Stephen. I wonder if this is setting a pattern, with the even-numbered books being war-related? It's a historical episode I know nothing about, though I have checked who ended up winning (basically, Maud's son Henry II, if you're curious).
The cover copy of the original U.S. hardcover calls this a "Medieval Novel of Suspense," while the original paperbacks appear to label the series "Medieval Murder Mysteries." (The most recent U.S. paperbacks appear to call them just "Chronicles of Brother Cadfael.") I think the hardcovers are more accurate; the mystery component of these varies, at least in the puzzle-like, Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes sense that is my core association with "mystery novel." In this one, the plot and the mystery unfold at about the same speed, and the climax is a, yes, suspenseful confrontation between the villain and an intended victim, not the revelation of whodunnit. That's fine with me; it's perfectly entertaining reading either way.
(While these are rapidly turning into popcorn books for me, I should really pace myself a bit more; there are a few things that might become irritating, taken in big lumps. After the first few pages, I can adjust to Peters' writing style—she apparently thought a comma could and should do everything a semicolon does (is this a British thing?), but there are some hints of unpleasant class-based stuff that might not just be the 12th-century characters talking. I'm not sure, but if I spread those hints out, maybe they won't ruin my enjoyment of the series. Interestingly, the religious component isn't bothering me at all; it's in the background, and while Cadfael certainly believes, I don't feel that the books are trying to shove that belief down my throat as TRVTH. I do wonder if we're ever going to see Cadfael actually make a mistake, though.)
I'm not dead, I'm just . . . failing to rest, actually. Did I mention that exams suck? They suck enough that, after my second one, I really needed something with snappy dialogue to get me out of my funk. Put that way, the choice was easy: Steven Brust's Issola.
I meant to re-read this slowly and savor the narration and dialogue, but the story sucked me right in, even though I know what happens. This is the second of the hard turns the Vlad Taltos series has taken (the first being Teckla), and so much interesting stuff is revealed, or hinted at, that one hardly knows where to start. The current medium makes it easier, though, as most of the really interesting stuff would be huge spoilers, which I try to avoid here; I'll just sketch the opening hook.
Vlad Taltos, former assassin, witch, outcast, and king of First-Person Smartass Narration, is camping in the wilderness while on the run for his life; he is quite surprised to be woken in the middle of the night by—of all people—the exquisitely civilized and polite Lady Teldra, whose job, as far as we know at that point, is welcoming people to Morrolan e'Drien's floating castle. Morrolan and Aliera e'Kieron have gone missing—which is a good trick for two highly skilled sorcerers in a land where sorcery is ubiquitous, not to mention for wielders of Great Weapons in a land where it's moderately easy to get one's hands on a weapon that will instantly suck out someone's soul.
If you've read any of the Vlad books, that setup will (or did) have you drooling where you sit. If you haven't, I hope you get a sense of why lots of people were bouncing in anticipation this summer—but I also hope you don't run out and buy Issola, because it's a rotten place to start the series. Run out and buy The Book of Jhereg instead; it's an omnibus of the first three books in the series.
I enjoyed the heck out of this, and can't wait to see where Brust goes with it. (I'll have to, though, as he is currently working on the also-long-awaited Viscount of Adrilankha. Fine by me . . . ) There's so much fun dialogue that it was hard to pick just one excerpt, but I really ought to be getting back to studying, so here's an early passage. (The bits in italics are, of course, psionic communication between Vlad and his familiar, Loiosh.)
She [Teldra] laughed. You never know if an Issola is laughing to be polite. I resolved not to try to be funny around her.
"How long do you think that will last, Boss?"
We finished our coffee at about the same time and called for more, which was brought with a cheer and alacrity that showed the hostess had fallen under Teldra's spell. No surprise there.
I said, "So Kiera told you how to find me, Sethra did the locating, and Morrolan let you go into his tower and use one of his Magical Mystical Powerful Transcendental Wizard windows to get here. What I'd like to know—"
"Not exactly," said Teldra.
"Morrolan didn't exactly let me use his window."
"Morrolan . . . that is, I didn't ask him."
"You didn't ask him."
"I couldn't. I didn't—that is, I don't know where he is."
"I see. I begin to see. I think I begin to see."
"Perhaps I should begin at the beginning."
"Arbitrary. But still, not a bad choice."
"Almost a minute, Boss. Good work."
"Shut up, Loiosh."
Doris Egan's The Complete Ivory is an omnibus of three novels, The Gate of Ivory, Two-Bit Heroes, and Guilt-Edged Ivory. I'd read The Gate of Ivory on the plane coming back from New Year's and liked it, but put off reading the rest because it was good travel reading, and I had a lot of that coming up.
The setup is that there are four planets in this sector (which was cut off from the rest of the galaxy some time before the story). On Ivory, and only on Ivory, magic works, for a few people. Our narrator, Theodora, was stranded there; she is telling fortunes in the marketplace to try and earn her passage back to her home planet, when Ran Cormallon shows up and offers her a job—telling real fortunes with a special deck of cards. Being Ivoran, Ran neglects to tell her a number of important details about the job, like what happened to his last card-reader . . .
The three books each tell a separate story, but together form a very loose arc showing the progress of Theodora & Ran's relationship. I enjoyed these a lot; they're one of the odd series that is science fiction but sometimes feels like fantasy, but the place that science and magic occupy in the complicated societies on Ivory has been worked out pretty carefully. The story moves along briskly, and I quite enjoy Theodora's company.
[Theodora's contraceptive implant has run out, and she's just got her first menstrual period in years. While on a grueling hike with people much taller than she is.]
Why doesn't anybody ever warn you about these things? I thought about all those marvelous stories I'd read back on Athena, the legends I'd fallen in love with—the heroes setting off to seek fortune and adventure. Knights and damosels rode forth to do battle at castles perilous, and the damosels never had this problem. And hobbits and tall elves strode swiftly over the earth, and the hobbits never had any trouble keeping up. Of course, hobbits were supposed to have great endurance.
If only I were a hobbit. A male hobbit.
I'd recommend these, particularly to Bujold readers, but more generally, to people who like their adventure with plenty of meat on the bones of the characters and the culture.
I've read one and a half books since I last updated this, but I want to talk about the one—Jo Walton's The King's Peace—along with its sequel, which I'm planning to read next. So instead I'll mention the half, Daniel Pinkwater's The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death.
Why is this a half? Yesterday we were in the Book Barn, a local (to Schenectady, that is) used bookstore; while the cashier was ringing up my half-dozen Brother Cadfael novels (each about a buck fifty; I like that place), I happened to spot the audio book of The Snarkout Boys. Since Chad's read and liked it, less than five bucks to hear the author read it seemed like a good deal.
We listened to the first quarter in the car, but I dozed off during the second back at the apartment. Taking this as a sign that I'm not cut out for audiobooks unless I'm in a car, I read the other half of the book over lunch today.
What a weird book. (As though you couldn't guess from the title.) There are some great bits in here—listening to Pinkwater read the three different speeches in Blueberry Park was very funny, and I enjoyed the pure deadpan narrative voice—but overall, it wasn't quite my flavor of weird, I think because I prefer my plots at least a little coherent.
Because I was sleepy yesterday on the train, I needed something less intense to read than what I'd planned (the sequel to The King's Peace), so I read one of the Brother Cadfael novels I'd bought over the weekend, The Virgin in the Ice. Yes, that means I've skipped the fifth one, but hey, if I'd had it, I would have read it. (I have it back in New Haven from the library.)
Being an even-numbered Cadfael novel, the plot stems from the civil war. Empress Maud's forces have sacked Worcester (I wonder if the English pronounce it the same way people in Massachusetts do?), and refugees have flooded the countryside. A pair of noble teens are missing, along with the nun accompanying them; they keep disappearing and reappearing through the course of the novel. And, of course, someone gets murdered.
This is a nice twisty one, with an interesting revelation at the end, and a good way to pass the sloooow train ride from Albany to Boston.
[Update: I'm told that yes, "Worcester" is about the same to the English as to us Massachusetts folks—I'd render it, very roughly, "whu-sta" (or "wuss-ta" or "woo-stah" or however you want to try to convey those vowels).]
Truly, I am a slave to my moods and my sleep pattern—at least when it comes to picking something to read. Yesterday it was my sleep pattern.
I used to have a copy of Apollo 13 (formerly Lost Moon), by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger, at my parents' to read before bed; it has a few stand-alone chapters that work really well for that. Unfortunately, I left it on a low shelf in my room at a time when the puppy was still allowed in it. One chewed paperback and one torn-up bed underside later, the dog was barred from the room (literally; one of those pressure gates), and I needed a new copy of Apollo 13. I hadn't got around to it until just now, though, using up the last of a gift certificate on it. I'd been re-reading this a bit at a time, but last night I had insomnia (gee, surprise) and finished it off.
As the change of title suggests, the very good movie was based on this non-fiction book. Having movie adaptations somewhat on the brain lately, it was interesting to re-read this and see the changes; some problems were ignored for simplicity's sake, some were exaggerated for dramatic purposes, and some people were slower on the uptake than in the book, also for—I hope—dramatic purposes. The book provides excellent lucid descriptions of the challenges faced by the astronauts, and does a nice job of showing just how many people were working on the problem, without overwhelming the reader with different characters. If you enjoyed the movie, or are at all interested in space flight, I recommend this highly.
Trivia note of the day: There's a chapter about Apollo 8, of which Lovell was also a member. Apollo 8 was not originally scheduled to circle the moon. In the hardcover of this book, which I read first from the library, there's a note that the mission commander's wife was rumored to be upset at the change, blaming someone in particular (I've forgotten who now). The reference to blaming a particular person has been removed from the paperback version.
The stuff clogging up my memory . . .
What is worse, to see good people fall to grief from their flaws, or from their virtues? I couldn't put those in a hierarchy, and "tragedy" is a terribly watered-down term these days—but Jo Walton's The King's Peace and The King's Name reminds one of why the term gets expanded.
[I read this Friday on the train back to New Haven, but have been putting off writing it up because I knew I had a lot to say. You've been warned.]
This variation on the Matter of Britain is set several worlds over from ours, where the gods are indisputably real and magic works. (A very solidly built world, as well. I like Chad's description that it has "a sense of coarse and grubby realism without reveling in the dirt.") It's fantasy as history not yet turned into legend, as remembered by one who was there: Sulien ap Gwien, armiger to Urdo ap Avren ap Emrys, the High King of Tir Tanagiri and, in Sulien's view, "the best man of this age of the world." (We as readers are not terribly inclined to disagree, though a ballad quoted about Urdo's Queen, Elenn, says that "The two best men in all the world have loved me," and we're going to meet the other one in the forthcoming The Prize in the Game. Which is my fault, so I'm looking forward to it even more than I usually would.)
I'm coming to realize that what I value most about narrative voice is the sense that an actual, highly individual person is doing the talking. This is probably why I enjoyed the Ivory books more than some people, and certainly why I bought Ovid's Amores, and also why I have an abiding fondness for the well-done First Person Smartass. Sulien also has a very distinctive voice and personality, to such an extent that I was just boggled when other people tried to fit her in the established pattern of the legend—"She's Lancelot!" *choke* "No, she's Sulien." (There are in-story reasons to think she's not Lancelot, also, but those weren't why I choked.) On a slight tangent, this is why I don't care for the "academic" Prologue to The King's Name; it jars me out of Sulien's narration. (I'd read it on the web in a slightly different form, so I just skipped it this time.)
Sulien claims that her "story has no drama; a land defended, vows unbroken, faith upheld. That is not the stuff of legend." Well, maybe so, but it does not lack for drama all the same. Her narration, looking back from the end of her long life, is finely balanced and plausible; Sulien as a character does just enough reflecting on future events (things like "It's strange to think of them being grown-up and married now") as someone would, remembering, but (usually) not too much to spoil the suspense. She also notices the kinds of things that her character should, well, notice, and doesn't explain in detail the kinds of things she wouldn't think about. This means a reader must pay attention, but I would not call this a difficult book.
The story spans about twenty years and is divided into three books: The King's Peace, which is the story of how the Peace was won; The King's Law (published in the same volume as the first), which is the years after, making and holding the Peace; and The King's Name, when civil war threatens the Peace. (The first line of Name is destined to feature prominently in "identify the book by this first line" threads, I am sure: "The first I knew about the civil war was when my sister [name omitted] poisoned me.") The story is studded with some wonderful and well-realized characters; even the skin-crawling villain has his reasons, he who, of any character I've met, most deserves the description "that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." (Far more than the killer in the Rex Stout novel.)
More importantly, the key parts of the story have that sort of dread inevitability that accompanies your classic tragedy—you can see exactly where and why it's all going to go smash, but there's nothing you can do to stop it—but, as I said, there are no fatal flaws here (though perhaps there is harmartia; I'm working off high-school English classes and couldn't really say). We know, from the Prologue of the first book, that Urdo falls but the Peace survives; but seeing it happen is (of course) entirely different, and, well—I cried, anyway. (The ending's mix of bittersweet emotions reminds me a bit of my reaction to Lord of Emperors, for people who've read that as well.)
From the sheer length of this, you've probably guessed, but yes, I think these books are very strong, well-crafted down to the small details, and enjoyable, and not just because I know the author. If this were a Hollywood pitch, I'd describe it as "sort of like if you took Guy Gavriel Kay doing the Sarantine Mosaic, and Lois McMaster Bujold doing The Curse of Chalion, and John M. Ford doing The Dragon Waiting, and Caroline Stevermer doing When the King Comes Home, and then shook them all up"—but it's not, and aren't you thankful? Those kinds of pitches can only capture pieces of a work, not the entire thing, and The King's Peace and The King's Name are, like Sulien, entirely themselves and their own, for which I am glad.
In The Leper of Saint Giles, Ellis Peters' fifth Brother Cadfael novel, we get a few more details about Cadfael's crusading past. While I don't think I'm interested enough to read a honkin' big history on the Crusades, there's something strangely evocative about the images Cadfael recalls—the storming of Jersusalem, Guimar de Massard breaching the gate, the battle of Ascalon against the Fatamids of Egypt, "Bohemond and Baldwin and Tancred, squabbling like malicious children over their conquests" . . .
The plot centers around the granddaughter of Guimar de Massard, who is being married off against her will to a nasty piece of work—until he's murdered, of course. The story's not as intriguing as The Virgin in the Ice, but it's nice to see Brother Mark again, and these lepers are a lot better company than Thomas Covenant, for certain.
Found the only Nero Wolfe book I hadn't read before, Not Quite Dead Enough, in a used bookstore this week, so naturally I bought and read it. Unfortunately, it was more exciting for its timing than anything else. Both of the stories in this volume are WWII stories; the first shows what an evolution Lily Rowan's character, and her relationship with Archie, have gone through. I don't know if she was throwing a temper tantrum or Archie was being a jerk—he doesn't tell us enough—but it wasn't very enjoyable, and I far prefer the way they are together in A Family Affair. The second is another bomb story, with the sort of ending that I've never really cared for.
I do have one more Wolfe story to find, but I'm not holding my breath. Maybe I'll re-read Prisoner's Base instead, one of the best Wolfe books, which I also netted during my bookstore run—as well as another stack of Ellis Peters, which I was particularly glad to buy because the store had recently had someone walk off with a whole shelf of books. People suck sometimes—it's a Bryn Mawr bookstore, for goodness' sakes, their money goes for scholarships.