Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn Girl (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, #9)

This is the story of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, and her sister, Mary. Gregory takes known dates and events and weaves a rather gripping story around what might have happened to cause these to occur. So even though the ending wasn't in question, the journey was quite fun.

While amusing, the portrayal of Anne seemed inconsistent. At the outset she is clever and witty, plotting with her family to advance their station in life. When she catches Henry's eye she becomes conniving and ruthless and helps to oust a sitting queen, and when she becomes queen herself she turns into an outright shrew, shrill and unpleasant. The well-known adage "power corrupts" could be an explanation, but the intelligence shown early seems to fade with Anne becoming a caricature of the megalomaniac queen.

The writing style is straightforward, with a minimum of flowery romance-speak—something I appreciated. A bit long, but the action moves quickly enough it doesn't feel like a 650+ book. More entertainment than biography, this makes me want to read a more factual account of the time. Certainly kept my interest, and well worth the time it took to read.

First Sentence:
I could hear a roll of muffled drums.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was an asshole. He was brutally honest, took credit for other people's work, and believed ordinary rules didn't apply to him. (My "favorite" example of this last attribute is that he never put a license plate on his car and always parked it in a handicap spot.) For someone that is renowned as an artist and visionary, he ironically saw the world in black and white: everything was either "genius" or "bullshit." Despite all this, he changed the world in a profound way that hasn't been seen since Thomas Edison.

Isaacson does an excellent job of describing this mercurial and complicated person. Jobs comes across as temperamental and unsympathetic, but his passion for his work shined through allowing his friends and employees to forgive a lot of his behavior. He had the uncanny knack of seeing to the heart of a problem, but still allowed himself to be swayed by psychics, herbal therapies and natural healers, and bizarre diets and cleanses. He raged against Microsoft and Google, often accusing them of stealing his work, when in reality he himself stole virtually everything unique about the Macintosh from Xerox. Isaacson takes the difficult task of describing an unlikable man and achieves something amazing: at the end I found myself admiring Steve Jobs.

First Sentence:
When Paul Jobs mustered out of the Coast Guard after World War II, he made a wager with his crewmates.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, by Josh Noel

Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business

This is more than just the history of Goose Island Beer Company; this is the history of how Anheuser-Busch went from ignoring craft beer to trying to kill craft beer to (somewhat) embracing craft beer.

Goose Island was founded in 1988 and fairly quickly established themselves as a solid brewer in Chicago. In 1992 they basically invented the bourbon barrel-aged movement with their Bourbon County Stout and placed themselves among the leaders of the growing craft beer movement. Around this same time the explosive growth in craft beer started cutting into the profits of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors so they did what any near-monopoly does: they tried to kill their competitors. This cold war between large and small brewers continues through today, but in 2011 a major shift happened: AB InBev bought Goose Island outright. This was seen as traitorous by the craft industry and the Brewers Association which governs craft reacted by officially defining craft beer as "small, independent, and traditional" which meant that Goose Island went from a leader in the industry to an outsider overnight.

Noel does a good job of telling the story and showing the logic behind the decisions of the major players. He is fairly even-handed (if anything, he may have underplayed the outrage and sense of betrayal that occurred when the purchase occurred) and accurately noted that the craft beer community breaks down into two camps: people that care about how the beer tastes and people that care about who profits from the sales. (Personally I feel more of a kinship with the first group, but certainly understand the animosity towards "big beer" and their bully pulpit.) This is a fascinating and entertaining narrative, and Noel describes it well. His conclusion is spot-on, capturing the bittersweet result of the war. "Craft beer won: it forced the biggest beer company in the world to change. Craft beer lost: it had been commandeered by the biggest beer company in the world."

First Sentence:
On a Thursday evening in 1986, as a spring storm pounded the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, John Hall sat in an airplane on the rain-glazed tarmac and did something he would recount for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

A Chain of Thunder, by Jeff Shaara

A Chain of Thunder (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theater, #2)

This book tells the story of the Campaign for Vicksburg during the Civil War. I've visited the National Military Park there a couple of times and always find it both fascinating and moving. Shaara does a good job of providing varying frames of reference from both sides of the battle, generals and enlisted men alike. There are several maps throughout giving a feel for the movement of troops, which is nicely juxtaposed with the southern civilian viewpoints who were only told their position was impregnable and chose to believe it.

This is clearly a well-researched novel, with detail after detail about the quality of life as well as the military strategies. I was surprised to find that anti-vaxxers were not a recent idiocy but were alive and well in the 19th century. "It amazed Bauer that so many in the town, and in the army, had responded instead with outcries against the vaccinations that seemed born of nothing more than superstition." With all this detail, though, there is a surprising lack of what life was like for the slaves in Vicksburg—none of the narrators were Black. When white civilians during the siege were reduced to eating dogs and rats, what the slaves ate isn't stated. Considering this was a war over slavery, this lack of insight hurts the overall narrative.

It was strange reading a novel about the Civil War during a time where it feels our country is splintering along similar political lines, if not physical ones this time. On the North side Grant and Sherman fought to hold the United States together. On the South, Pemberton fought out of loyalty to his Virginia-born wife rather than dedication to the Confederacy. The Northern soldiers fought for duty, the Southern desperate to maintain their way of life. Both sides are depicted fairly nobly, and the institutional racism at the root of the conflict isn't a part of the story. Makes you wonder how the raging racists running Washington will be depicted in literature a century from now.

First Sentence:
The ball was a glorious affair, the Confederate officers in their finest gray, adorned with plumed hats and sashes at their waists.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward (Skyward, #1)

I've liked everything Brandon Sanderson has written, and this book is no exception. Skyward tells the tale of young Spensa that dreams of being a pilot like her father, fighting the aliens that keep them trapped on a desolate world. Unfortunately, her father mysteriously went from hero to traitor during a battle and she has been branded the daughter of a coward, unsuitable for society—much less a candidate for flight school.

Sanderson's world-building and magic systems are legendary, but neither are really present here. This is targeted at young adults, but it felt dumbed-down compared to his other works which was disappointing. YA novels tend to be coming of age stories and shy away from extreme themes, but that isn't any reason to have one dimensional characters or a by-the-numbers plot. Look at The Outsiders or Ender's Game for better examples of the genre. That said, this is still an enjoyable read with a good hook and nice twist at the end setting up the sequel.

First Sentence:
I stalked my enemy carefully through the cavern.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)

This third book of the Stormlight Archive might be the best of the three so far. The main players have all been introduced, but their roles are continually changing keeping them interesting. The war hinted at in the previous novels is here in full force, and yet rather than devolving into battle after battle the plot is still filled with mystery. The twist in motives towards the end was masterfully done, arriving as a surprise yet clearly being obvious in hindsight.

Sanderson's writing continues to sparkle, sometime taking me out of the story entirely with wonder. When one character wakes up with a stiff shoulder he thinks to himself, "He had found middle age to be like an assassin—quiet, creeping along behind him." Having turned 50 myself this year, I found this to be a delightful and sobering description of life these days. And speaking of sobering, one character discovers to her delight her magic can immediately cure her drunkenness. Now that is a power I'd like to have!

Rhythm of War is the next book and is due out later this year. With ten books being planned for the series, my worry is that this will deteriorate into a George R.R. Martin-style of delay after delay, but am willing to give it a chance. At least for a while!

First Sentence:
Eshonai had always told her sister that she was certain something wonderful lay over the next hill.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons

The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons #1)

This novel explores a rich fantasy world, complete with dragons, magic, quests, and prophecies. It is also confusing as hell, with characters that switch bodies, get resurrected or are seemingly immortal, a narrator that makes comments and footnotes as the story unfolds (and is himself a player), and a storyline that jumps back and forth in time with each chapter. I was hooked when I read the blurb on the back: "Then again maybe he isn't the hero after all. For Kihrin is not destined to save the empire. He's destined to destroy it." A lot of promise in that statement, and as the main character (Kihrin) isn't really likable as most stereotypical heroes there seems to be some weight to the premise. Sadly, the outcome is muddled, almost as if Lyons couldn't decide what to do. Hard to follow, but I think I'll give the next book in the series a chance.

First Sentence:
"Tell me a story."

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