Book Thread 2024

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

Larson returns to WW2 with this book about the first year of Winston Churchill being Prime Minister. The book tells the story of him and his family during that time, with a background of the war and the bombing of Britain by Germany. The story is told through various diaries and other writings from the time. We learn about his sometimes strange behavior and his ability to find people who can get a job done, i.e. Lord Beaverbrook. Through German sources we see the story behind Rudolf Hess and his flight to Scotland to “make peace”.

I have to admit to being somewhat taken by Churchill. I have read his 6-part series leading to the start of world war 2 and have encountered him in many other books of the period. I just bought the third and final in Manchester’s series (Manchester died before the third was written but the book was finished by Paul Reid) and will read it sometime in the near future. Churchill is one of those figures in history who seem to have been destined for a certain time and place. He seems to have been made as a wartime leader, and even those who loved him at that role knew he wasn’t the peacetime leader they wanted, as he was voted out of power shortly after the war.

I think I have come to like Larson’s books about the world before (In the Garden of the Beasts) and at the start of WW2 more than his other period pieces. He seems to stay on subject better. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know about the Blitz and about Churchill himself.

I just started A Fire Upon the Deep due to the reccs in the 2023 thread and it’s excellent! Just 40 pages in and it’s unique and fast-paced and harrowing.

I recently read something called Gone by Michael Grant, half of the team that wrote Animorphs (the lead writer was his wife!). Great premise - one day everyone aged 15 and over disappears. Full stop. One second the teacher is lecturing to the class and the next she’s literally gone. (that’s what happens in the opening sentence) Now it’s up to the remnants–all aged 14 and under–to rebuild, but there’s other strange things afoot. A private school for troubled youth is just up the hill; wonder if they’ll cause any trouble? One of the survivors has odd new powers, and he’s not the only one…

The plot is pell-mell, which kept me reading, but the first thing that turned me off was how similar it was in structure, theme, concept, and even character archetypes to something I read last year called Nemesis, where a young woman is killed by a mysterious stranger every other birthday, only to wake up hours later in a particular clearing in the woods. And she’s not the only one…

So of course Gone is from like 2012 and was a super-bestseller (your Gen Zers probably know it) so Nemesis is the copycat, but boy are they of a piece. There’s the reluctant but resolute hero, their best friend / love interest who becomes the naysayer as they meet new and interesting people, the school bullies who become major antagonists, and more.

Anyway, the book is pretty brutal. Some super-powered kids have their power-emitting hands encased in concrete blocks by a baddie, and are flailing around unfed midway through the novel. Another kid is killed by a baseball bat to the head, there’s a bulemic carer for the littlest kids, the hero has to remove a dead baby from a house because no one was around to care for it…but there’s not a swear word in sight. Not even “ass” - the bully says “I could kick his butt.”

ANYway, this book was for kids, and by the end I was turning pages going ‘yeah yeah’, ready to wrap it up.

And it’s the first of 6 books.

In the main series.

There’s 3 followups after that.

The synopses of the following books are insane, so enjoy those.

If you want some fast-moving intense ‘kids being assholes but not mentioning assholes’, you could do worse.

I’ve enjoyed Martha Wells’ Murderbot series thus far, but it’s been a while since I read the previous books. Which made reading System Collapse (number 7 in the series) feel like I hadn’t done my homework, because it drops right into the middle of a mission to save a colony from corporate greed and alien contamination, and I only vaguely remembered how all that tied together in the Murderbot universe. I felt the same way about the characters - I remembered SecUnit and ART pretty well, but there’s a lot of other names thrown around that were only vaguely familiar. On top of that, our narrator spends much of the first part of the book dealing with trauma and thus presenting a distorted view of character motivations. Put all that together and I felt lost and confused for quite a few of the initial chapters, which felt very slow-moving. But there’s good news, once you get your feet under you about who the characters are and SecUnit starts to think more clearly, the latter part of the book is just as good as the earlier stories. On the whole, I enjoyed System Collapse, but I think I’d have liked it a lot more if I’d first refreshed my memory of the people and plot in the prior book or two.

You and me both, sir. Although it seems like the traumatic event that gets “redacted” is not in that book, but is simply a later reveal in this one, which was the biggest thing I felt like I was missing.

I often look for summaries of books that I read a while ago when I attempt to read a new book in a series. A lot of fantasy authors especially seem to write books with so many characters with made up names that are often so similar that it boggles the mind.

I’m way behind on updating my reading list, so I’m going to be dumping some in here, even though they were property 2023 books for me.

The Land of Stories: The Enchantress Returns by Chris Colfer. The Land of Stories is quite the rage in third grade right now, but my daughter doesn’t really go for books that are too scary so she asked me to read this one (not to her, exactly, but sort of on her behalf). This is the second in the series (not sure why I didn’t get the first) and it wasn’t bad (and it wasn’t really scary). I wouldn’t recommend it for adults, but if you or your child is looking for an introduction to the fantasy genre, you could certainly do worse. It is “modern” in the sense that it’s got a strong female lead and is generally “woke”, so you don’t need to worry about that aspect. The last interesting bit is that the author is an actor (played Kurt on Glee), which was amusing when I first saw the author photo and recognized him.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is the sequel to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (whatever else, I’m digging the book titles in this series). It’s pretty well separated from its predecessor: one of the two main characters is a minor character in the previous book, and the other main character isn’t in it at all (well, maybe they put in an appearance, I can’t quite remember). So the fact that it was a while ago that I read the previous book was not an issue, except that I couldn’t really remember the specifics of the different alien species. Unfortunately, this book was just not as good as the previous one, in my opinion. The story alternates chapters between the two characters as they each strive to become members of a society that doesn’t really want to have them as members, but in very different ways. The overall arc was good, and moderately interesting, but also somewhat… boring. And there weren’t any politics bits or even crew-relationship-development bits. Just about the only things that changed over the course of the book were each of the two characters’ sense of self and relation to their society, and that wasn’t enough for me. There are two more in the series, I believe, and I enjoyed reading this enough to continue on, so we’ll see how the series finishes out.

Again, I couldn’t sleep last night, and I finished A Deadly Education. Is Naomi Novik always this good? I noticed she’s written a lot of books. I just loved it. To be fair, students at a school together is already one of my favorite sub-genre/setting for books, so I was already pre-disposed to love it, but man did I love it.

Just so that someone doesn’t get the wrong idea by comparing it to other students-at-school books out there, this one is written completely in first person, so you’re always in the head of the protagonist. That leads to the novel feeling really claustrophobic at times and insular. You really only get one perspective and you’re always in someone’s head and hearing their thoughts. It’s not the type of novel you can get when written from a 3rd person perspective. Novik really takes advantage of the perspective here and does some really interesting things with it, but don’t expect something that’s a more traditional perspective.

I loved the ending too. A perfect ending that’s just intriguing enough that you want to read the next novel, but you’d also be just fine leaving it right there if there was never a next novel.

In my opinion, Scholomance is her best work. Her Temeraire series is really good too, but the setting of “Napoleonic wars but with dragons” is very different. Given that you’ve admitted a predilection for school settings, you’ll probably feel the same as I did. Which is to say you should still read Temeraire, just don’t expect it to be quite at the same level.

I’d say Uprooted is the best thing she’s written.

Tales from the Perilous Realm is one of Tolkein’s relatively few non-legendarium works. Well, a collection of a few of them, plus The Adventures of Tom Bombadil which is a collection of poems that I suppose technically are in the legendarium, though they serve as a sort of bridge between the themes he’s working on in the other stories and Middle Earth. The stories range from something like Roverandom, which evolved from a story he told to his kids, to the more Faerie-like Smith of Wootton Major. I was not so much a fan of Roverandom, so the fact that my edition started with that meant that the experience started rough and got better, which is better than the reverse. I quite enjoyed Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wootton Major, which felt fairly similar to The Hobbit in style. Leaf by Niggle was ok. But the surprise winner of the collection for me was the poetry, as I’m not really a poetry guy. There’s quite a variety of meters and rhyme schemes in there, and I particularly enjoyed the couple that were described as in the playful style of hobbit poetry. (I’m not sure the name of the meter but it was a lot of fun to read; I was almost reading it aloud.)

Also included is his essay On Fairy-Stories (though I think he would have preferred to use “Faerie”). I thought it was interesting if a bit long, and I didn’t really agree with all that he said. (In truth, I don’t agree with probably the vast majority of his world view or what we’d today call his politics, as I think he was quite reactionary, though not really in the modern political sense of the term. But I love his work.) I am sort of listening to the Prancing Pony podcast and going through the Silmarillion, so I’ve heard a lot of their talk about On Fairy-Stories, and honestly kind of skimmed it a bit. But I do recommend giving it a spin either before or after (or both) reading the stories.

Overall, strong recommendation for any Tolkien fans, though I imagine most have already read it.

I read the entire Temeraire series, and while they’re easy enough read, I don’t rate them as much more than that. Mostly because the main character is quite a bit Gary Stuish, and the books seem more driven by the author’s need to show you this entire world she has invented (the world-building of which kind of falls apart the more you see of it), more than telling an interesting story. If you like Novik, they might be worth the read though.

My christmas project was Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s a book that has been on my bookshelf for over a decade, but watching the recent biopic and spurred on by the mate I watched the movie with (who loves it), I decided to finally get to it. Hey - it’s only 1400 pages; that’s only about 50% more than the average Game of Thrones volume, right?

Overall: interesting read, though it took a while to chew through (more so, I think, than 1400 pages should usually do for me).

Reading classics always has some issues; the language has moved on, and literary conceits that worked back during the 19th century (or even the early 20th), don’t work quite as well now. Generally speaking, I didn’t find the style or translation to be particularly problematic though - Tolstoy writes in a way which is still very effective today. He has an amazing ability to - in a few sentences - describe a person in a way which makes you feel like you know them (a good thing too, because there are a lot of characters). No purely good or purely evil characters. He jumps from character to character, and some of his viewpoint choices are very brave (like when we view a pre-battle conference between Kutuzov and his staff through the eyes of the young daughter of the house they’ve taken over). But he makes it work.

His battle scenes are also fantastic. Beyond fantastic, really - I doubt that there are many authors who have written more truly accurate battle scenes than this - ever. Tolstoy’s battles are not about heroism or glory - they are confusion, chaos, fear, and people trying to do their duty because they have to (and as often failing as not). His own experiences as a soldier in the Crimean war (were he was promoted for outstanding courage) no doubt contributes to this.

It’s easy enough to see why this has been hailed as the best novel in any language. It is not without its flaws, though. A lot of characters just disappear out of the narrative, and the epilogue - jumping many years ahead - assumes a familiarity with Russian history that cannot be expected of readers other than Russians of Tolstoy’s time. And then there is the philosophy. So much of it. Half the epilogue is just discussion (and ultimately not a wholly convincing one) of the problems of the historical record, meaning of history, etc. Which is not to say that it is uninteresting - much of it is great - but it just does not fit all that well in between discussions of balls and battles. Ultimately, Tolstoy doesn’t give a damn, though - which I guess is why he himself wrote “It is not a novel”. It is exactly what he meant it to be - and in being that, it is a great book.

Influential too, I imagine. In Tolstoy’s musing about history and diatribes against Great Man worship, you see the (to my mind) clear inspiration for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

These are words uncannily similar to Asimov’s descriptions of psychohistory. Interestingly, Asimov himself claims that he was never able to read and finish war and peace. In scope and form, Tolstoy also precedes (and IMO, in some ways surpasses) pretty much all “epic” sagas written subsequently. GRRM wishes he could write as well and as concisely.

Best novel ever? Probably not. But definitely one of those “bucket list” books that I think would be worth reading for almost everyone.

I finished re-reading The Rubber Band (Nero Wolfe #3) by Rex Stout.

When I was a teen my father introduced me to two authors; Alistair MacLean and Rex Stout. I loved MacLean’s “The Guns of Navarone”, “Where Eagles Dare” and my favorite “The Secret Ways”. I believe I read most of his books.

Nero Wolfe Series by Rex Stout was another favorite of mine. I read as many as I could find at the library. I mention this as my father died young at 46 and as I was re-reading “The Rubber Band” it brought up memories of my Dad. He would rave about the Nero Wolfe books and go into how great the radio shows were and wish that TV could capture the essence of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. There was a brief show (1981) starring William Conrad (of the Cannon TV Show) but he realty never captures the Nero Wolfe from the books (per my Dad).

In 2001 we had another Nero Wolf show that starred Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton and they really nailed the two characters. I remember wishing that my Dad could have seen them.

I will probably do a few more re-reads of the Nero Wolfe series. I may even re-read a MacLean book or two.

I really enjoyed The Art of Atari. It’s a huge art book filled with game cover paintings, alt art, and bios about the people who made them. It’s been in a few humble bundles & on kindle unlimited.

I read my way through most of these 2 authors when I was pretty young.

If you like MacLean , I might recommend Desmond Bagley to you, a roughly contemporary British thriller writer whom I quite enjoyed…

Continuing the discussion from Book Thread 2021:

I have finally gotten around to reading that second installment, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. The first book was about the meeting of Sibling Dex and the robot Mosscap; this second one picks up right where the first left off, as Dex takes Mosscap to meet other humans. It’s a cozy journey, with very little in the way of danger or distress, but plenty of discovery and relationship development. All this set on a future tiny world where harmony with nature and contribution to society has taken over from exploitation and materialism. It’s a utopian vision that’s hard to believe from where we sit today, but that makes it no less interesting and entertaining…and maybe even a little inspirational.

Nero Wolfe is great, but the first few books in the series are not the best as Stout hadn’t discovered his voice and IMO spent way too long on the technical elements of the mystery, which are never very interesting.

I have attempted to read Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M, but gave up about a quarter of the way through. Frankly, I was bored. This reads like a zombie apocalypse story, but instead of zombies there’s some inexplicable memory loss. I’ve read too many similar stories to enjoy another one without some extremely interesting hook, and mysterious memory loss just isn’t enough .

Can always watch Big O instead…