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Books read, late June. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Books read, late June. [Jul. 1st, 2012|10:59 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Daniel Abraham, The King's Blood. Not enough banking. The people want more banking. I mean, okay, plotting and social upheaval and what-have-you. But what makes this series stand out? Banking. Gimme. (Also, remember the conversation we've had about who dies early in George Martin's series and why I didn't think that was oh em gee such a revelation? Think about that one. Ahem.)

Elizabeth Bear (matociquala), ad eternum. I knew I would miss Abby Irene, but I got along better without her than I expected to. A lot of favorite series have been doing without a favorite character recently, and it's interesting to see how they manage differently. This volume does it by focusing on change, I felt, to its benefit.

Chaz Brenchley (desperance), House of Bells. This, on the other hand, is not ever establishing character continuity as a central feature of the series to begin with, but rather locational continuity. Which also works, as a way to do things, although I am less emotionally connected to the Swinging Sixties than to WWII homefront nursing. But as House of Doors was my favorite Chazbook, the fact that this was not quite up with it should not be read as a condemnation.

Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland: Volume II: 1795 to Present. It took me forever to slog through this. It was in the category of "gaps in my knowledge that need filling," and then I read the Olson/Cloud book earlier that touched on some aspects of this period of Polish history peripherally on the way to doing a much narrower and better-written thing. And then it was even more frustrating. Because problem one: this is a hard period to write about. Poland is not unified, so you end up with all sorts of scraps and pieces, and the organization of the writing is a genuinely hard question; Davies is not a talented writer. Problem two. Um. So for most of the book, Davies was trying very hard to fight the prevalent propaganda--both contemporary and in the time periods he was writing about--that to be a Pole is to be a Catholic. Which is worthy of him. But the occasional slippage was really damning. And when he got to the bit where people were asking why Poland didn't do more for its Jewish population during WWII...this is a valid question to ask, and Olson and Cloud answer it matter-of-factly and non-defensively on their way to doing other things. Davies, on the other hand, actually says in one hideous bit that you could as easily ask why the Jews didn't do more for the Poles.

No, really. He says this.

And no. No, you couldn't. It is not actually equivalent. It is just not.

If you heard an alto voice bellowing, "WHAT? You WHAT?" at some point and did not know why, it was probably me reading that line of this book.

He manages to pull himself together and get out what he really means, which is that Poland under the Nazis was a subjugated nation without a lot in the way of resources, which is true, and that there were Poles who did a great deal, also true. He does not say quite as clearly as he could that there was a preparatory layer of fairly recent anti-Semitism that was not what medieval Poland was about (although he does flail at this point), but in fact there was; he is not very clear, I think in a forest-for-the-trees problem or possibly through not being a very good writer, about the ways in which the Nazis treated Poland differently from other occupied territories in provable, concrete ways. "Here is how the laws were different in Poland," is a thing he could have said, and he did not. And this is what we call a major failure in a history of Poland even beyond the total fail of how he handled that part of the Holocaust. When I read Olson and Cloud, I came out of it absolutely furious about the anti-Polish propaganda I had been fed in various contexts. Furious. Davies was supposedly doing Polish history, and...nothing. Meh.

The other thing. Ohhhhh the other thing. Is that in the last chapter of this book, he saw fit to go on at length about the brilliance of...drum roll please...the previous edition of this very book. Not even another work of his. No. This book I held in my hands. How important and seminal it was and stuff. And wwwwwwow, no. Sometimes in a sparsely populated field you have to talk about your own work, because nobody else is doing it, and I fully believe that Polish history in English is such a field; that's why I kept on with this even though it was clear that Davies had his strengths in the first volume and not the second. Because sometimes filling in the gaping holes in my knowledge of the world takes some effort and is not a jolly romp. But seriously, this was the worst, "In my book," I have ever come across. He might as well have piled the stuff in front of him on the table at a convention.

I seriously hope I can find better methods of remedying ignorance of the history of this part of the world so I can recommend those. Because this one was really not so much the thing.

Mary Gentle, The Black Opera. Not my favorite Mary Gentle book, although if Grunts existed (lalala I can't hear you) it would make the position of least favorite a lock. An operatic plot. Uff da. I just--oh, teh melodramaz. Sigh. I mean, thematically appropriate with the titular item, sure, but if you're going to have your characters talking about things that would be in character for their characters, that seems to be calling the reader's attention to...things being in character. Which maybe in a melodrama is not your strong suit. Onwards.

Sveinbjorn Johnson, Pioneers of Freedom: An Account of the Icelanders and the Icelandic Free State, 874-1262. If you already know anything about this era of Icelandic history, this is not the book to find out more; if you don't, this is not the place to start. What it is, though, is an historical curiosity. It's an American book from 1930, and the places where he chooses to put his analogies, prejudices, and explanations, are amusing and fascinating. Tammany Hall! Even without the frisson of illegality, drink was consumed! It's kind of a hoot.

Matthew J. Kirby, The Clockwork Three. Late middle-grade or early YA book with automata and golems (consecutive and occasionally concurrent). I liked this book but never fell in love with it. I would recommend it and might even buy a copy for my godson, since he's about the right age for it. It's got all sorts of good bits. I don't know why I never fell in love with it. It's got tinkering and music and things that are hard without the author lying to kids to make them easier; it's good. It is. I wanted to love it. I just never quite made it there.

Vilhelm Moberg, Unto a Good Land. Grandpa's. "Oh no," moaned timprov, "it's a Swedish novel with 'good' in the title. That'll be even more depressing!" But actually it wasn't bad. The death toll was fairly low, the misery not as intense as one might expect. The baby that was born even survived so far. I mean, we'll see about the next two books. But in terms of the risk of me reading a Swedish novel and then moping for several days, it was really pretty minimal. (I still observed Swedish novel protocols and did not pick up another while it was still June. Just in case.)

Elizabeth Peters, Crocodile on the Sandbank. Um...guys? Those of you who like this series? Does it get better than Victorian feminist Scooby-Doo romance? Because the pacing was broken, and the plot twists were not twisty at all, and...several of you really like this series a lot. Does she hit some kind of stride wherein the climax will not make me say, "Jinkies, Frederick," aloud in my driest voice, or am I just a mean person who knows not joy? (Or, hey, both! We can always go with both!) Seriously, tell me more about the rest here, because the prose was entirely readable, but I'm not really...gripped.

Sherwood Smith (sartorias), Banner of the Damned. I talked about this book a lot at Fourth Street, as an example of someone using a long book to actually do a lot of stuff with politics, how she needs the space to build up the interpersonal and international relationships and the cultural stuff, how the history from the Inda books can inform these but Sherwood is trying to let Banner stand alone. I loved all that. I really loved much of this book; I loved the experience of reading it. What I did not love was the gradual feeling that it relied on naivete. I think Sherwood and I may fundamentally disagree on what a culture based on diplomacy relies upon. For me, a non-violent, diplomacy-centric culture has to have more understanding of violence, not less. A person from that culture has to have more understanding of the horrible ends people might put their gifts to, not less, if their diplomacy is to hold, and that is where Banner did not quite work as well as I wanted it to. But, oh, while I'm reading it, I love it, and I will read it again and love that part all over again--even if when I put it down I think, "But--" and "Well...."
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: jenett
2012-07-01 04:35 pm (UTC)
I like the Elizabeth Peters series more after the arrival of Ramses (their son). But I have a certain taste for romps of that particular kind, especially when they involve competent archaeology.

They do improve, in a manner similar to the middle of the Vorkosigverse books. (Ramses and Miles - ok, I would *never put them in the same room. Or the same planet. Or maybe the same galaxy. But boy, the destruction of same would be fun. And probably useful, when you picked yourself out of the rubble.)

(She has a Ph.D in Egyptology, and I once got to hear her speak at the centennial for the Brown University Egyptology about those bits of the books and dealing with current understanding vs. Victorian-Great War understanding. She is, as it happens a Bujold fan, which I know because I asked her what she liked to read.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-01 04:43 pm (UTC)
Hmm. See, the thing is, I like Shards pretty well to begin with. So the analogy is harder for me to work with. But I will think on it.
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[User Picture]From: dormouse_in_tea
2012-07-01 04:53 pm (UTC)
caveat: I have not read the Elizabeth Peters books in YEARS, and when I read them, I pretty much hadn't yet learned to think about what I was reading -- so I had feels, but no words.

My experience with the Peabody books, however, was that they were fun romps and then they got tedious. Looking back at them now, I think what that means is that they started off being brainless entertainment (not to say that they did not require or reward thought -- I don't remember them well enough to say that -- but that I could read them without needing to do more than run my eyes over the words on the page, and I would be distracted) and then by the time all of the extended family of characters showed up, I started actively not wanting to read them.

Therefore, if you don't mind reading series out of order / spoilers, I'd recommend grabbing one of the later ones -- The Falcon at the Portal, perhaps? -- to see if they build to something you would enjoy more. They do change.

edited because I forgot I was writing a parenthetical and I had to fix it so my comment would compile.

Edited at 2012-07-01 05:03 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2012-07-02 02:53 am (UTC)
edited because I forgot I was writing a parenthetical and I had to fix it so my comment would compile.

If internet comments had checksums and compiling errors the world would be a much better place.
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[User Picture]From: desperance
2012-07-01 06:32 pm (UTC)
My suspicion would be that if you didn't that much like Crocodile, the series would not be worth your pursuing further. I read the first several when they came out, but I found Ramses-the-child insanely irritating, and stopped. I'm told that he improves as a teenager, but being told so has not proved sufficient to draw me back. (I honestly don't remember how well or otherwise they worked as mysteries, or otherwise as novels; all I remember is the cat Bastet and the cutesy lisping boy...)
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2012-07-01 08:14 pm (UTC)
I feel the same way about Grunts.
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[User Picture]From: icedrake
2012-07-02 02:52 am (UTC)
Now, I have to ask: Why? I mean, it's far from being my favourite book, but it's also far from being my least-favourite. What did you and our fair hostess find so traumatic/offensive about it?
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[User Picture]From: thanate
2012-07-01 09:06 pm (UTC)
How do Sweedish novels compare with Russian novels on the needlessly depressing front? Because I kind of swore off ever reading anything by a Russian again a while back because I always regretted it. :/
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-01 09:17 pm (UTC)
They're not so interminable, is the thing. Also it's a different kind of depressing. For me a more rewarding kind, but your mileage, the variations, etc.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2012-07-01 11:53 pm (UTC)
Heh! Actually I totally agree with you about diplomacy. But . . .no, [excising blather about dealing with this question in work not yet published]

Re Poland, there is a book coming out in a couple months about the Jewish underground in Poland in WW II. I have it on order. I so, SO agree with what you say; I have had to resort to biographies and letters to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of Polish history over the past few centuries. Or delve into bits from other books, like Keegan's work on D-Day, which goes into the Polish portion and the battle of Falaise Pocket.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2012-07-02 02:52 am (UTC)
(Also, remember the conversation we've had about who dies early in George Martin's series and why I didn't think that was oh em gee such a revelation? Think about that one. Ahem.)

The only way it surprised me in this case was that it hadn't happened in book one where I expected to. As in, I opened book two and was surprised that character was still alive; I'd forgotten.

The whole Dragon's Path series reads to me like Abraham writing Martin, and while I love (LOVE) the Long Price Quartet, and I am a pretty devoted Westeros fan and even liked A Feast for Crows (which is like the SOIAF trufan secret handshake or something), the combination of the two just doesn't work for me. I'll be interested to see whether it's more commercially successful than the Long Price books, which as I recall sank like four very pretty stones.

...hey, I have access to BookScan numbers through work now, don't I.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-02 02:58 am (UTC)
I am not a devoted Westeros fan, and I'm interested in the same question.

The back cover copy on The King's Blood is so very clearly trying to make people pick it up hoping it'll be like SOIAF, good heavens. I was veryvery fond of Long Price, and this...is so not that. But banking! I will deal with a lot for a very little banking in my fantasy, apparently.
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From: stillsostrange
2012-07-02 04:28 am (UTC)
I read at least one and probably more of the Peabody books in high school and found them unbearably cutesy, and I was not a picky reader in high school. I think they were the books that first made me notice that all the ways the heroine found herself unattractive were well within modern standards of beauty. This made teenage me very cross.
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[User Picture]From: talimena
2012-07-02 12:20 pm (UTC)
I haven't reread the early Peters books, so my memory is fuzzy, but I do like and reread the later ones. They are still definitely romps and do not lose the melodramatic quality, but characters and relationships have developed. I remember the first ones as being very episodic and totally cardboard characters. I like the ones with Nefret,although I forget which one introduces her.
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[User Picture]From: auriaephiala
2012-07-02 03:06 pm (UTC)
I suspect that if you don't like Peabody in Crocodle, you simply won't like the series. I've found the more recent books more mannered and less readable, altho I was a big fan at the beginning. But for me they hit a whole bunch of favourite kinks: Egyptology, neo-Victorian lit, early feminists, early days of archeology, etc. etc. And I liked the contrast between what Peabody really was (via the author) and her own voice. But if that irritates you, it will continue.

Edited at 2012-07-02 03:06 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: davidgoldfarb
2012-07-02 09:42 pm (UTC)
The thing that amuses me about the Abraham books is how Orbit uses thick paper and large type to try to make them look like doorstops when they're really not all that long. Because they're trying to appeal to Martin's audience, and Martin's audience wants doorstops.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-03 11:40 am (UTC)
I noticed this myself. I had a moment of thinking, "Gosh, did the Other Change accidentally sell alecaustin the version for the visually impaired?" But no. That's just how they're printing it. Even making fun of myself for having had that thought, I still had several times where I was sure I'd turned two pages at once and hadn't.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2012-07-03 04:20 am (UTC)
I was very fond of Peters' The Last Camel Died At Noon, which is a very good parody of the things it is trying to parody (mostly early Hollywood serial and H. Rider Haggard), and which for me lived up to its title. The rest of them, eh.

Daniel Abraham is I believe Martin's Designated Person To Finish My Series If I Am Hit By A Bus. Pretty sure his recent stuff is just-in-case practice.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-03 11:38 am (UTC)
Which...I'm not reading the Martin books written by Martin. But banking! I liked the Long Price Quartet! And banking!

Sigh. Seriously I am so short of banking.
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2012-07-04 12:34 am (UTC)
I enjoyed the first Amelia Peabody book, read two more and didn't enjoy them as much, and I think book met wall in the fourth book. I just couldn't take Ramses' lisp. Or the tweeness. But cakmpls, whose opinion I respect, likes them quite a bit. So mileage varies, I guess. But if you didn't think much of the first, I don't think there's any need to keep on.


Edited at 2012-07-04 12:36 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: cissa
2012-07-09 04:39 am (UTC)
I read "grunts" by Gentle, and have not really felt like reading anything by her again. I had read a couple of her previous novels before that; they did not sway me.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-09 11:47 am (UTC)
As you see from the rest of the comments section, you are not alone in this reaction.
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