On The Nightstand – The Emperor’s Soul – 6/23/2018

I’m kind of kicking myself right now because I found this wonderful little story via a review and recommendation by someone from the WordPress community and I can’t – for the life of me – remember who it was.  I normally like to call out anyone who’s made a recommendation that turns into a wonderful read and I just can’t this time.  Whoever you were, my very sincere thanks.

I’ve never read Brandon Sanderson and I’m not sure how that’s happened.  He seems to be very well regarded and he’s certainly been successful.  My sister loves him and swears by “The Stormlight Archive” – some of her favorite books.   So…Sis – this one’s for you.  If you haven’t read this book – go download it to your e-reader and give it a try.  It’s a novella – little over 100 pages – it’s a quick read that you’ll finish in an hour and a half with your morning coffee before the rest of the house gets moving – and I think you’ll really enjoy it.

I was really impressed by how much Sanderson was able to accomplish in so few pages.  He managed to define four really interesting characters – Shai, the forger – Gaotono and Frava, the Arbiters – even Ashravan, the Emperor, despite the fact that he’s lying in a coma until the final few pages of the book.  He presented an interesting system of government in enough detail to make it real.  He constructed a pretty novel system of magic that he rooted in a real life experience (side note – if you pick this up, make sure to read the Postscript and the Acknowledgement as they provide both Sanderson’s thoughts on inspiration and his source for this story).  He constructed a very active narrative that grabs you early, moves you along and never really lets you go.  Finally, he serves up a beautifully hopeful story about the nature of art, redemption through second chances and the subtlety of human connection.  I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend a brief hour and a half of your life.

I’ve never spent much time reading novellas – always gravitated to novels – enjoying the room they gave authors to create, develop and play with their world, their story and their characters.  I have to say that my reading this year is really forcing me to re-evaluate – both this book and the two novellas in “The Murderbot Diaries” that I’ve had the pleasure of devouring.  I can see how how much harder it probably is for an author to craft a truly enjoyable tale in a very short format.  Every chapter and every sequence of the narrative has to matter.  There’s no room for misses.  Sanderson does an exemplary job in this respect with “The Emperor’s Soul”.

On top of both the challenge and potential reward of the format, publishers are putting some of these stories out in beautifully bound editions.  I really enjoyed this edition’s size – it fits comfortably in your hand the way a full length hardcover novel never does – and the cover art was really elegant.  This is a purchase I’d recommend for collectors and I’m glad it’s now on my shelf.

The final bit of good news – I enjoyed this so much that I’ve gone back and ordered Sanderson’s debut novel – “Elantris”.  If I enjoy it as much as I did “The Emperor’s Soul”, I’ll be moving right along to “The Stormlight Archive”.  See Sis – there’s hope for me yet. 🙂

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On The Nightstand – Blackwing: Ravenmark – Epilogue – 6/18/18

So…my wife and I are laying in bed last night – she’s checking her phone – I’d just started Jim Butcher’s “Brief Cases” – and she turns to me and says “You got a little lazy with your post tonight”.  At the time, I didn’t really believe that to be the case and I still don’t – I thought it was a neat idea to let the author speak for himself – but she made her point.  When I express that strong a preference for a book, it probably does deserve just a bit more than what I gave it in last night’s post.  I’m not going to overwrite tonight but I do think I should say a few more words.

I posted those quotes because I love to find authors who really use the English language effectively – authors whose writing creates explosive pictures in my head and / or who elicit strong reactions – either intellectually or emotionally.  As I was reading Blackwing, I couldn’t help but think – Wow…McDonald really, really knows how to use his words.  In this case, it was an incredibly grim, ugly picture but it very real as I was reading – it just jumped off the page.  Those quotes I posted were just a sampling but…for me… they were representative.  To find an author capable of doing that in his debut – that’s a double bonus and it leaves me hungry for more.

While all his characters were extremely well drawn – the good (vanishingly few), the bad and the ugly (plenty of both) – I was particularly impressed with how he built his protagonist – Ryhalt Galharrow.  McDonald starts small with him – someone who presents in the beginning of the book as a relatively simple bounty hunter – but gradually builds out a life history that makes everything about him – his dissolution, his callous attitudes and – ultimately – his heroism – all entirely believable.  He was able to make me accept a broken down, alcoholic sell-sword that also retained a sliver of god-touched heroism at his core in a way that never felt contrived or cliche.  Those two strands of his character were extremely well-balanced throughout the story – in such a way that you never expected either too much or too little from him.  Overall, the ugliness of Galharrow’s life mirrors the ugliness of the Range in a pretty seamless way.

I was also totally sucked into the Misery and the Range and the palpable hopelessness of both places.  McDonald populates the Misery with some truly ugly creatures.  The Gillings were just repulsive but the Darlings were a particularly loathsome creation and they’re a great indication of the way McDonald creates impact for his readers.  He’s taken the penultimate evil in the Misery – the most potent and dangerous servants of The Deep Kings – and placed them in the bodies of children – easy to disregard until its far too late.  The Range is just desperate and hopeless – nothing clean or strong about it.  As I read through the book, there was never a feeling of strength, cleanliness or light – even those who fight to defend it are broken, compromised, confused or just worn down.  You won’t find anything in this place to like but I suspect it will be hard for you not to find it fascinating – it has the feel of the trench scene in “Apocalypse Now” – endless war – hopeless cause – whatever virtue you arrived with – now long gone.

I really enjoyed the way that McDonald was able to mask his ending – almost until the final pages of the book.  You spend the entire story buying into a narrative that The Nameless – those supernatural allies of Galharrow and the other humans inhabitants of the world – have spent 100 years building for their own purposes.  In the final 50 pages, the entire thing is turned on its head.  I could tell that McDonald was building to something but I honestly couldn’t get a line of sight on the end game until – like their adversaries – it was just too late.

Finally, McDonald encourages an unavoidable suspicion throughout the book that The Nameless – humanity’s god-like benefactors – are really not that different from our and their adversaries – The Deep Kings and their Drudge minions.  In the final few pages of the book, however, he manages to subtly dispel that suspicion and provide them with just a hint of moral superiority.  It’s not enough to like them or trust them but it is enough to be thankful for their protection from The Deep Kings – who do prove themselves to be thoroughly alien and inimical.  I found this final note to be particularly well played.

Short to long – it all worked for me.  I just can’t find a thing to quibble with on this one.  That’s rare and it’s exceptionally rare in a debut.  I have pretty high hopes for this author and I am really looking forward to the release of the second book in the series – Ravencry – in August.  In fact, the only complaint I  have is that Ace chose not to release a hardcover edition of this second volume.  Why would they do – it almost climbs to the level of literary malpractice.

I hope this helps provide a bit more insight into why I enjoyed the book so much.  If it doesn’t, I’ll at least have satisfied both my strongest supporter and my most insightful critic.  🙂

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On The Nightstand – Blackwing: Raven’s Mark – 6/17/2018

“When You Talk, You Are Only Repeating What You Know.  But If You Listen, You May Learn Something New”

Dalai Lama XIV

Something different for this post – none of my words – just those of the author:

“Saw a lot of people come and go over half a lifetime on the Range.  Some of them came and went, some of them came and died, and the ones that did neither weren’t often the kind you wanted around.  First time you lose a friend, feels like you’ll never be the same again.  Lose enough of them, you realize you aren’t the same, but you’ve forgotten h ow to be whatever it was you were before.”

“When you realize the mountain you’ve been climbing is just a heap of s**t, the fall doesn’t feel so far”.

“Real power shows itself through the disregard one has for those that defy it.”

“People are sheep,” I said.  “They do as you tell them..  They believe what they want to, or whatever frightens them the most.  If they don’t like it, they reject it or they ignore it.  It’s natural. Can’t blame them for it.  Can’t tell them they’re stupid either.  They don’t understand that they’re sheep.  How could they?  The sheep don’t realize the shepherd is smarter than they are.”

“We all sat down, and Destran brought coffee.  According to Dantry, it was an excellent, smooth blend, but to me all coffee tastes the same.  It tastes like not-booze, which means it might as well be mud from a ditch.”

“The poker was starting to glow red at the tip.  Not quite hot enough, not yet.  Stannard knew his business.  Wasn’t his first time playing the torturer either.  Prince Herono sat with a faraway look, deep in thought, somewhere else.  Nice to know that my impending agonized destruction wasn’t the most important thing on her mind.  I could smell the iron getting hot, giving the air that forge-baked hollowness, the dry empty flatness of scorched metal.

The world is a cruel mother, a matron of darkness, selfishness, greed, and misery.  For most, their time suckling at her breast is naught but a scramble through stinging, tearing briars before a naked, shameful collapse as the flesh gives out.  And yet in the bright eyes of every newborn, there lies a spark, a potential for goodness, the possibility of a life worth living.  That spark deserves its chance.  And though most of them will turn out to be as worthless as the parents who sired them, while the cruelty of the earth will tell them to release their innocence and join in the drawing of daggers, every now and then one manages to clutch to its beauty and refuses to release it into the dark.”

“The Iron Goat had decided to go as well though there was no running for him.  His withered, shrunken frame swayed in a cold wind blowing in through the windows.  The plush red curtains lay in a heap on the floor.  He’d used their hanging cord to form the noose, made a ceiling beam his own gallows.  His eyes stared, tongue protruding from his toothless gums.  I stood in the doorway, watched his cadaver sway in the wind.  Before I’d come to the Range, there had been stories of Range Marshal Venzer.  A tactician so cunning that the Deep Kings had chased him across the Misery.  A living legend, responsible for countless triumphs, a man who made every arrow go farther, made every campfire seem warmer just by sheer force of reputation.  I’d have died for that man, and now he slowly swung back and forth in an uncaring wind.  Just another body.”

“Half armor is like a whore’s dress:  just enough there to cover the vitals without getting in the way of business.”

This was an exceptional debut by a writer who, IMHO, has the potential to tell truly exceptional stories in a truly exceptional way for quite some time.  I was locked onto every word, sentence, page and chapter and did not let go until it was done.  It was everything that Cameron Johnson would have wanted “The Traitor God” to be and more.

I’ll have to go back and review my reads but – right now – still thinking through the last few pages, I have to say that this may represent the best book I’ve read this year.

Please give it a try.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  You’ll be hammered a bit flat – it’s humorless and quite dark – but you won’t be disappointed.

Have a Great Week.

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On The Nightstand – The Traitor God – 6/16/2018

“Missed It By That Much”

Maxwell Smart

**Spoiler Alert**

I have to start by making it clear – I thought this was a good read – particularly true given that it was a debut novel – my second for the month of June – following “The Poppy War”:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-the-nightstand-the-poppy-war-6-2-2018/

I found it to be a far better book than R.F. Kuang’s “The Poppy War”.  My third debut novel for the month will be “Ravenmark” by Ed McDonald.  Once done with all three, I’ll profile them all and compare strengths and weaknesses.

Cameron Johnson did well with this one and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.  Having said that, it broke my heart a little because I think this could have been a truly great debut – a very memorable book – with just a few changes.  For me, two things stood in the way of a really special debut experience:  1) Johnson added complexities to the narrative that weren’t crucial to his story and served as distractions and 2) he just put too much into the climatic, final segment of the book…turning it into more of an exhausting marathon than a cathartic triumph for the protagonist.

Johnson started strong and kept me very tightly engaged for the better part of the book.  For a first novel, the writing is tight and crisp – his language is powerful and pretty evocative – I was able to picture the ugliness that is the City of Setharis.  There were a few instances where it felt a bit contrived – like he was trying too hard – but overall, a very well written book.  His characters – Edrin, Charra, Layla, his Mage / Archmagus colleagues, the petty and not so petty criminals you meet along the way – are all well drawn and interesting.  Johnson is obviously a talented writer and I’ve no doubt that I’ll be reading about Edrin Walker and Setharis again soon.

The world that Edrin Walker inhabits and its history is only sparsely characterized – but it’s more than enough to ground the story.  The only stage that matters here is Setharis, the system by which it’s governed and the mages that do the governing.  Johnson did a fine job bringing this to life and I did really find the city to be both fascinating and a creative, novel setting for a book.  Thinking as a writer, it occurred to me, as I was reading, that its not a bad way to approach a debut.  It ensures focus and minimizes distractions.

Walker is, for the most part, an engaging and interesting hero / anti-hero.  As the story unfolds, I couldn’t help but find him to be more likable than he finds himself.  In most cases, he does what I would consider to be the right thing – he just smashes a fair bit of crockery along the way and he’s more able than most to accept and embrace the collateral damage that results.  I found Edrin’s recurring, internal monologue about his perceived character flaws to be overly harsh and his decisions and actions, of which he is constantly critical, more a reflection of realism and appropriate situational awareness.  He does, in those critical moments when it matters, display an appropriate degree of loyalty and / or bravery.  Most significant is his determination to use his gifts in a restrained and ethical way.  He’s a guy I wouldn’t mind having a drink with and swapping stories.  Having said that, I don’t think I’d lend him the keys to my car or let him house sit for me.  Overall, I thought the guy was a bit too hard on himself and that proves out by the end of the book.

So…why the Maxwell Smart quote and the feeling that this one fell just a bit short of what it could have been?  Several thoughts:

  • There are some elements to the story that I just didn’t feel to be completely necessary – particularly the presence of the Skallgrim and the Scarrabus.  They both exploded into the climax, took on an oversized role and, as a result, felt a bit artificial or distracting.  While I understand that they’ll both be important to later installments of this series – particularly the Scarrabus – I felt that Nathair and his blood magic construct – the Magash Mora – would have been more than enough to drive the climatic sequence in the book.  It certainly doesn’t break the story in any way.  I’m just suggesting that we didn’t really need the Skallgrim to be such a prominent part of the final chapters and I felt that the Scarrabus were not as skillfully introduced as they might have been.
  • The climax in this book was far tooooo long.  First we activate the Titan, then we fight the Mogash Mora, while doing so – we wade through the Skallgrim and their blood magic shamans, then we confront and kill Nathair – the Traitor God – in an extended scene that has several phases.  I almost felt like I was in a computer game where I had to beat multiple Final Bosses to win.  The final battle with Nathair went on forever – almost like a fight with a Raid Boss in WOW – something that can take 30 minutes to an hour and is broken into phases.  For me, it just went on too long and it detracted from what could have been a really interesting final confrontation.  Again, it doesn’t break the book – in fact, I do understand Johnson’s need to use that scene to unload a huge amount of back story – but it subtracted something from the experience for me.
  • Finally, just a couple of quick observations: 1) I was disappointed to learn that Edrin’s personality – the person we came to know and start to appreciate over the course of an extended narrative – was actually a construct of his old mentor – why give us Edrin, let us come to understand and appreciate him in all his tattered, compromised nobility – only to let us know that someone overwrote many of those character traits onto an earlier and less questionable character, 2) why establish Edrin’s awareness of the presence of Lyrras – Edrin’s friend whose death launches this entire narrative – in the amalgam of the Mogash Mora and not use that as a larger part of the final confrontation with that construct – it just seemed like a miss to me, 3) in the final battle with Nathair – Edrin’s use of the Shadow Cats seemed misplaced – a little contrived and unnecessary – there were so many things going on in that extended scene – I just didn’t see the need, 4) I was left a bit confused about the presence and role of Edrin’s soul bound dagger – Dissever – over the course of the narrative, it had been established and built up as an incredibly potent weapon but wound up playing no real role in the final battle – it was destroyed and dismissed almost as an afterthought yet preserved in some small part – likely to serve in future installments of the series, 5) the idea of The Imprisoned – a supremely powerful and dangerous entity imprisoned under the city of Setharis – both the source of the Five Gods’ power and their reason for being bound to the city – came at me from left field – no quibble with the concept – just one more thing thrown against the wall in the last 50 pages

I know this sounds a bit critical and I don’t really want it to – but they are observations I took away from the book – observations I would have offered up to Johnson as a beta-reader or an editor.  Overall, this was an extremely entertaining read, a very strong debut novel and one that was certainly good enough to leave me looking forward to the next installment of the series.  I’d recommend “The Traitor God” to anyone.

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On My Mind – Turquoise Table – 6/10/2018

I’ve moved a great deal over the course of the last 30 years – every two to three years on average.  I’ve lived in many cities – both here in the U.S. and overseas and I’ve always been both fascinated and gratified by the way communities come together and friendships form.  People always find a way to connect and enjoy each other – in ways that cut across the visible and attitudinal barriers that separate them.  Until recently, it’s something I’ve enjoyed in passing – arrive in a new location, create a home, find friends and then move on – taking with me the good memories and wondering forward about what I’ll find in the next location – wash, rinse, repeat.

A funny thing happened on that last move – we stayed – for 8 years now – and we’ve actually started to put down some roots.  Literal roots – as we’ve spent years working the same gardens, physical roots – as we’ve maintained, decorated and re-decorated the same house and emotional roots – as we’ve made and kept friendships.  It’s an experience I haven’t had since I left my family’s home to go to work in D.C. when I was in my mid-twenties.

We’ve been really fortunate in the area we chose.  It’s a very settled, very old Village up on the far north end of Chicagoland – fairly rural at one point – now a reasonably prosperous suburb with a great high school, a really quaint downtown area, a couple of pretty picturesque lakes that sit at the heart of the area and bunch of really great people.  I’ve always said it’s like someone extracted “Leave It To Beaver” from the 50’s and dropped it into the 21st Century by adding Cable, the Internet and Smartphones.

Our neighborhood has been a particular joy – walking distance from both the High School – a true Friday Night Lights town – and the Downtown Area – walk to dinner and stumble home – full of great friends.  We have what’s quickly becoming a tradition – called the Turquoise Table.  One of our neighbors read something in a magazine about a similar tradition out of Austin, TX, – an article about a traveling neighborhood party and – realizing that while she knew her neighbors, she never really carved out the time to be with them – launched our Friday Night Turquoise Table.

She and her husband purchased a used picnic table – installed some wheels – and four benches, then painted them all turquoise.  She pulled together a neighborhood roster and collected all our email addresses.  For two years now, as soon as the weather starts to warm, she emails the group to recruit volunteer hosts and fills up the Summer roster.  Every Friday afternoon from mid-May to about mid-September, the Turquoise Table turns up in a new front yard and, around 6:30, people start to drift over to the host home – carrying food and drink.  For the next three to four hours, you’ll find a group of 30 to 40 folks of all ages, sitting or standing, talking, laughing, drinking eating.  We’re out there until the sun goes down and the lightning bugs start to come out – enjoying the weather,  celebrating the end of another work week, enjoying one beer too many and checking in with neighbors.  It’s a great way to disconnect from what we do during the week and relax into whatever we have planned for the weekend.

Thinking about how much good that comes of it in our neighborhood, I couldn’t resist the temptation to put up a quick post on the topic – in hopes that others might give it a try.  Given the time we live in – both with respect to pressures we may experience as a result of things completely outside of our control or that feeling of isolation which sometimes results from living in an age where most of us communicate impersonally and electronically – I do believe we all need some kind of Turquoise Table – Pub, Park, Bingo Hall, Community Swimming Pool – whatever venue that you can find where most of the folks actually do know your name and are genuinely glad to see you.  It’s been a great thing for all of us.

Hope everyone has a great week.

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On The Nightstand – Miss Subways – 6/9/2018

“Finishing A Good Book Is Like Leaving A Good Friend”

William Feather

I always know when I’ve been touched by a book – when it’s done more than just entertain me or amuse me or enlighten me.  Every once in a while you read a book that leaves you still – silent – balanced – reflective – thankful – crushed – uplifted – by the final page.  For me, it sometimes manifests in a reluctance to put it down – a desire to run my hands across the cover – as though that small touch will prolong whatever feeling I was left with at the end.  At other times, a book’s touch can manifest in an inability to move on or close – to clear it from your thoughts – a belief that if you sit and continue to think – you’ll get to a better understanding of what you’ve just read.  However it manifests, it’s usually just a desire not to acknowledge the fact that you’ve finished.

This was just such a book and I’m very thankful to JenniferTarHeelReader for gifting it to me through her review.  It likely would never have penetrated my pre-occupation with all the fine new science fiction and fantasy that I want to read had it not been for her intriguing review.

In retrospect, I’d also have to say that this book came at a perfect time.  It was a week characterized by the loss of someone as successful – as well known – as talented – and as seemingly in touch with the world around him as Anthony Bourdain – and the existential questions that kind of loss can’t help but raise.  It was a week consumed by my own preoccupation with difficult professional choices.  In a week like that, it was a small but meaningful blessing to spend a quiet Saturday afternoon finishing a book with such a profoundly hopeful message – one that emphasizes the potential in all choices we might make and denies the inevitability of unhappy endings.

I found so many things to like in this book. First and foremost – Emer – the protagonist – was just delightful. She’s simple on the surface – in her priorities and the patterns of her daily life – but rich and engaging and lovable when experienced through the lens of her thoughts, her emotions and the way she relates to those around her – both the natural and the not so.  In that respect, she reminded me a bit of Myfanwy Thomas in “The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley – another book and character that I truly enjoyed.  Emer is so straightforward, open, centered and guileless in all that she does – both in her mundane life as well as her supernatural experiences – that I couldn’t help but be charmed.

I really enjoyed Duchovney’s writing.  For me, it was witty, sharp and impactful – it hooks you and holds you – it pulls you along.  I loved the ambiguities that sit within the earlier parts of the narrative – the possibility that some of what Emer perceives may not be as real as it seems due to her past medical condition.  I loved the characters that surround her.  Sid / Sidhe was a consistent delight in both his incarnations, Emer’s declining father and the contrast between who he was and who he becomes as a result of that decline, Ging Ging, Madame Wong, Han – even Corvus – the crow that she saves – all had something to add and did it in a delightful way.

Finally, I loved the mythology of the book – that we bring our Gods with us wherever we go – that our belief creates them and sustains them – that America and it’s immigrant culture has made it a melting pot of Gods from all religions and all corners of the world.  It’s the same concept you find in Gaiman’s “American Gods” – with a kinder, far gentler face.  Duchovney’s world is one where we live in the unrecognized but constant presence of Divinity – a world with room for endless interpretations of that Divinity – and one where that Divinity is bound to us in such a way as to make them partners – for both good and bad – in the conduct of our daily lives.

It was a wonderful book that came to me at the perfect time.  Thanks to David Duchovney for a much-needed, uplifting read.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 5 Comments

On The Screen – Chocolat – 6/3/2018

This may be going back a ways but I saw “Chocolat” for the first time this week with my wife and I enjoyed it so much that I just had to put up a quick post.

I think it was Wednesday – we’d both had busy, challenging days at work, we’d both gotten home a bit later than expected – around 7:00.  We’re early risers – usually around 5:30 so we try to head up to bed around 10:00.  We’d just finished a casual dinner, I’d done a little writing and it had gotten to be about 9:30.  We were both sitting on the couch – catching up – getting ready to end the day – when for some reason, my wife started flipping through the XFinity selections.  This one popped up and without even thinking, she punched the Rent button.

Not sure why we decided to start a movie at what for us would normally be the end of the day but I am so glad we did.  It’s a beautiful movie – one worth watching more than once.  On it’s face, the story is simple but the themes are rich, thought-provoking and very rewarding.  Combine that with some wonderful cinematography and some very fine acting (nice to be reminded from time to time that Johnny Depp can actually act)  and we were riveted – completely forgot the time.

I won’t describe the plot – I suspect many of you have seen it already BUT…if you haven’t, please do.  I think you’ll love it.  We finished around 11:30, completely rejuvenated, in a great mood and went off to bed with smiles on our faces.

You never know when a blessing is going to come along and it actually doesn’t take much to turn a tiring day into a rewarding one.  This was one of those times.

PS:  I immediately ordered a copy of the book from Amazon – off my phone while we were watching the movie – as a birthday present for my wife.  She enjoyed it that much and I know she’ll love the book.  The only reason I’m putting this in a post is because she boxed me into telling her.  When we were at HPB on Friday – she came up to me with a copy in her hand and I had to talk her out of buying it.  Smart woman – she immediately knew why.

🙂

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On The Shelf – Treasure Hunting – 6/3/2018

About a month ago, I put up an “Odds & Bits” post on a series of what I thought were fun items.  One of those was a mention of the fact that we’d recently had a Half Price Books open in the neighborhood – cause for celebration in our house.  As I mentioned in that post, HPB is not a place where we buy most of our reads – although I admit to recently picking up new copies of both “Circe” by Madeline Miller and “The Outsider” by Stephen King.  I was intending to read both and they were just there on the shelf – begging me to buy them.  That’s the exception that proves the rule; however, what we really love about HPB is the treasure hunt aspect that it offers.

We’ve probably been 6 times in the last two months – just to browse and see what might be on the shelves.  I’ve found some really fun titles in near perfect condition, including but not limited to: two books in the “Avalon” series by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a copy of “Citizen Soldiers” by Stephen E. Ambrose, a copy of an OOOOLD SF classic – “Footfall” by Niven & Pournelle, a copy of “Gladstone” by Roy Jenkins and a copy of “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” by Jim Butcher.  All fun finds but none rise quite to the level of treasures.

That changed two nights ago and let me show you how.  I’ve mentioned that I’ve been buying and reading Ray Feist’s Midkemia series for 30 years.  Here’s my 29 book collection:

Delighted to have them all but anyone who looks closely with a collector’s eye will notice two small problems.  Here’s the first:

I have all three volumes of the “Legends Of The Riftwar” trilogy but one of my volumes is off size.  I actually have two of copies of that edition of “Murder In Lamut” – the result of two efforts over the years to complete the trilogy with identical editions.

Well…checked in at HPB on Friday night – just decided to take a look and see if there was anything new on the shelves.  I was walking through the Fantasy & Science Fiction section and – THERE IT WAS – a full size edition of “Murder In Lamut”.  I’m delighted to say that – after many  years – I’ve filled a hole in the collection – leaving me here:

That was a completely unexpected birthday gift from the God Of Books that I never saw coming and it put a cap on a very joyful birthday.  That smaller edition has now been placed respectfully in the Inventory Pile.

I now just have one final problem to solve with respect to this series:

All I need to call this done is find a Doubleday Foundation edition of “Daughter Of The Empire”.  I’ve been looking for that book for years and I’ve made multiple, unsuccessful attempts – currently leaving me with 5 of the standard, smaller size editions.  I know it’s out there and it will likely come to me at the time when it’s least expected.

Still, that’s what the treasure hunt is all about and that’s why we love HPB.

And let me say it before anyone else does – I know I’m a bit OCD about my collections.  I have no defense except to point out that buying and collecting books is my only real vice – one that my wife finds completely acceptable given all the less savory choices.  I hope that provides just a little bit of perspective.

Hope June is a great reading month for everyone.

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On The Nightstand – The Poppy War – 6/2/2018

“A Man (Woman) Has To Know His (Her) Limitations”

Dirty Harry

I’m not particularly well suited to the role of reviewer – due largely to the fact that I try hard to find things I like in all the books I read.  I generally temper any criticisms I might have.  I truly respect those with the discipline and ability to construct a narrative in their head, translate that narrative into a written story and then overcome what I know must be a whole series of maddening obstacles associated with having your story published – all the work that goes into birthing a book.  It’s certainly not anything I’ve ever proven myself capable of and – as a result – I hesitate to criticize anyone who has – barring a few rare yet notable exceptions on this site.

That’s particularly true with first time authors.  I’m always prepared to make allowances for someone’s breakthrough achievement – accept what might be less than completely polished work in exchange for fresh ideas and raw talent.  It’s a hopeful exercise for me and I’ve been incredibly lucky several times this past year – Ann Leckie with “Ancillary Justice”, Yoon Ha Lee With “Raven Strategem”.   While they didn’t quite work to the same degree as these two, Leo Carew and Daniel O’Malley both had great debut novels in “The Wolf” and “The Rook” respectively.  Debut novels give me the chance to find a new favorite author or a new favorite character or a new favorite world – I’m always an optimist and I’m all too willing to overlook minor flaws.

That’s the mindset I brought with me to this book.  I was really, really hoping for something special – new author with an interesting story, interesting concept, clear historical precedent (second Sino-Japanese War) – but for me it all just went so horribly wrong sometime around the transition from Part 1 to Part 2.  What started out as an unremarkable but still enjoyable story about a peasant girl gaining entrance –  in defiance of all expectations – to an elitist military academy somehow morphed into an undisciplined book that tried to do far too many things – serve far too many themes, juggle far too many characters, visit far too many places.  In my opinion, what could have been a tight, interesting story wound up morphing into a cold, sticky, tangled mass of leftover spaghetti.

Kuang introduces and develops so many characters – Jiang, Nezha, Kitay, the instructors at Sinegard are several of many examples – only to discard them in relatively meaningless ways.  She drags us from place to place – Sinegard, Khurdalain, Golyn Niis, The Chuluu Korikh, a secret Federation medical clinic where atrocities and war crimes are being committed, the island of Speer – in a wild, disjointed and disorienting way.  She builds the shamanistic discipline that serves as an anchor for the story in a way that never seems to resonate or make much sense – it assumes a dependency between use of shamanistic magic and the use of psychoactive substances and then turns that assumption on its head, it incorporates spirit walks, it introduces Hexagrams without really explaining their significance or role, it establishes the principle of attaining incredible power by accessing / connecting with the Gods but also has those very same divinely possessed humans ultimately submitting to confinement in a magical prison when the become too powerful and unstable.  I was hard-pressed to find one truly sympathetic or marginally likable character in the book.  The book is overly long – covering too much ground and trying to do too many things.  There were far too many red-herrings, dead ends and disconnected plot devices.

By the time I was halfway through Part 2, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that the story was in desperate need of a firm, disciplined editorial hand.  It felt to me like the author’s ambition had far outpaced her ability and no one had intervened to impose order on her chaos.

I did finish the book but I have to admit that I was tempted on more than one occasion to simply give up and move on to more promising titles.  The whole thing left me disappointed and a bit sad thinking about what could have been.  I’m not likely to return to this world when the second entry in the series becomes available.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 5 Comments

On The Screen – Solo: A Star Wars Story – 2/28/2018

**No Real Spoilers Here**

I’m really not sure why I’m even going to do this.  Expressing an honest opinion about a Star Wars movie can – depending upon the crowd – be every bit as fraught as bringing up religion or politics.  Still – here goes…

Sue went with me to see this last night – testament once again the patient and selfless nature of her commitment – given that this is not her genre and that she has ever so graciously stayed with me through almost every science fiction and superhero release over the course of the last decade.  Gentlemen – one bit of advice – never overlook those smaller, less dramatic gifts on her part which help to prove just how committed she is to your partnership and be very ready to reciprocate in kind.

We both enjoyed the movie – I likely enjoyed it more than she – but here’s the problem – reflected in our conversation after the final credits:

  • Me:  What did you think?
  • Sue:  It was cute.
  • Me:  Yeah – it was fun

I think that says it all and I’m not sure that I could possibly write a more damning review.

It wasn’t a bad movie – the acting was a bit unpolished at times – the story was episodic and less than seamless – but I have no regrets.  Like I said – it was fun.

The problem with the movie is more – for me – a problem with the franchise.  I saw the first movie in the ’70s – while I was in High School.  Despite the fact that I was up to my neck in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Comics, Dungeons & Dragons – I wasn’t really aware of the movie – not sure how it hadn’t popped up on my radar.  I just got a call from a buddy one afternoon who invited me to go with him to see a new movie called Star Wars.  I had nothing to do so I was in – with almost no expectations.  Needless to say – I was blown away.  It was one of the most overwhelming movie experiences I’d ever had – from the moment the introductory scrolling dialogue appeared – to the music during the closing credits.

Given the time and the novelty and the unknown actors and actresses and what were – at the time – very innovative special effects – that movie was a pretty seminal experience for a whole lot of people.  I also suspect that for many of us, it’s one that will never be matched – with the possible exception of “The Empire Strikes Back”.  Every entry in this franchise since “Empire” has simply failed to live up to the original vision and the original experience for me.  I was so ambivalent about the three prequels that I’ve only – in all these years – watched each of them once.  IMHO, they were mediocre and they’d lost the clean, simple good vs. evil contrasts of the first three which made them so much fun.

The entries in the third trilogy are – in my opinion – struggling with this problem – basically, after damaging the franchise with the prequels – how can we repair it and ensure that it remains emotionally and commercially relevant.  I can’t say that Disney has found a good answer just yet.

I truly hope that they do and I’ll continue to give them more chances – the original movie was just too good and too important to so many of us to see the entire brand get buried under poor management of the franchise.  Until then – I guess “cute” and “fun” will have to do.

Posted in On The Screen | 4 Comments