Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)

Another 1100+ page book, still seemingly nowhere near a conclusion. And, frustratingly, after finishing this I discovered that despite being published in 2011 the final entry in the trilogy hasn't yet been completed. That is a lot of time invested in an incomplete story!

To be fair, though, Rothfuss has penned another good tale, although it could have used some serious editing. At one point there is a huge adventure while traveling between two distant lands that is disposed of over the course of a few sentences—"Over the course of my trip I was robbed, drowned, and left penniless on the streets of Junpui. In order to survive I begged for crusts, stole a man's shoes, and recited poetry. ... Over the last two span everything I owned had been lost, destroyed, stolen, or abandoned."—whereas later in the narrative there is a fairly uninteresting adventure that takes twenty chapters to fully relate. While meandering, though, the world building here is once again excellent.

When discussing how magic in this world works one of the character asks, "Where does the extra energy go?" How often does an author consider kinetic and thermal energy when designing a magic system? Another fascinating touch is a language that in addition to spoken words uses hand signals to convey emotion and context. When reading, I couldn't shake the idea that this is how emojis would work if somehow incorporated into our verbal communications.

While I enjoyed this novel, it is covered with the stink of "second book in a trilogy." A heck of a lot of things happen, but everything is simply building slowly to the conclusion in the final entry. As a bridge book it isn't bad at all, but with the finale not yet written it seems to suffer quite a bit. Worth reading, but you might want to wait until the final chapter is published!

First Sentence:
Bast slouched against the long stretch of mahogany bar, bored.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

Set in the American South of the 1960s, this is a book with Jim Crow at its heart. Racism and unfairness saturate each page, coupled with sadness and misery, cruelty and inequity. Amazingly, the spirit of the main two boys keeps the story from becoming depressing, and in fact, was quite an engaging and even uplifting read.

Based loosely on the real-world Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Florida that was violently abusive to its charges for virtually all of the 111 years it was open, The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis and his friend Turner. While violent, the dignity and dedication to survival the boys possess prevail over the casual racism shown by not just the craven staff, but the rest of the world in general. "They had whipped Elwood. But he took the whipping and he was still here. There was nothing they could do that white people hadn't done to black people before, were not doing at this moment in Montgomery and Baton Rouge, in broad daylight on a city street outside Woolworths." (Sadly, racism hasn't been vanquished in the decades since segregation fell out of favor, but simply driven underground until the recent rise of the alt-right and its seeming embrace by the Republican Party. It is hard not to read this book and see the parallels to what is happening today in migrant detention camps.)

The surprisingly short book is broken into three parts: the first two parts are presented sequentially and in a straightforward manner, but the third starts jumping backwards and forwards in time causing the narrative to be a bit hard to follow. This change in style makes sense once reaching the epilogue, but until then the chapter breaks can be a bit jarring. Entertaining seems an odd word to use for such a bleak plot, but I did truly enjoy reading this thought provoking novel.

First Sentence:
Elwood received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.

Friday, February 07, 2020

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, by Leonard Goldberg

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries #1)

In 1914 Sherlock Holmes dies, but Dr. Watson lives on at 221b Baker Street. Unbeknownst to anyone save Watson, Holmes had a daughter with Irene Adler due to a singular night of passion. This daughter, Joanna Blalock, was adopted immediately after her birth (Adler died during childbirth) with her true parentage unknown. However, she has inherited Sherlock's keen observational skills and eidetic memory and so when she crosses paths with Watson and his son she gets pulled into a mystery, quickly taking the lead with her deductions.

This is a very "Sherlockian" tale, with a very straightforward plot and many, many asides where facts are determined by deduction that is beyond anyone but Joanna. Once you accept the coincidental notion that virtually every main player is a descendant of someone from Holmes lore—besides Watson's son and Blalock, Lestrade's son is now a police detective and the villain is the son of Colonel Sebastian Moran, a criminal with whom Holmes crossed paths—the story is quite entertaining. There are a few odd asides, such as a short history of the Rosetta Stone for no apparent reason, but overall quite charming.

The book is positively riddled with nods to the Conan Doyle stories, some obvious and some not so much. One throwaway line from Blalock towards the end really caught my attention: "I have read about a chap in Paris who uses my methods, and they say he is quite good." As this takes place after the Holmes chronicles, I don't think this is referring to a Conan Doyle character, but instead to some other contemporary literary sleuth. Joseph Rouletabille seems a likely suspect, but Arsène Lupin would be a good choice as well (although being a thief some of the symmetry with Holmes is lost).

Not amazing, but enjoyable; a nice homage to the classic Sherlock Holmes epics.

First Sentence:
As was my custom, I visited my father, Dr. John H. Watson, every Friday to make sure he was comfortable and not in need.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Endgames, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Endgames (Imager Portfolio, #12)

Unlike most of the Imager Portfolio, the plot here is more political than magical. The times, they are a changin', and the land of Solidar is experiencing an industrial revolution which in turn is causing the rank and file workers and crafters to lose their jobs to cheap imports and increasingly mass-manufactured goods. The ruling class is struggling to maintain their civic dominance, and the new middle class of factory owners and bankers are just tasting power for the first time and reluctant to give in to the rioting lower class people. The ruler over all this recognizes that change needs to happen and is slowly trying to modify the government to include representation from everyone, causing broad strife and upheaval (and a few assassination attempts).

The plot is rather pedestrian for Modesitt, with heavy introspection and long descriptions of practicing a musical instrument rather than battles, action, and intrigue. That said, the debate on a minimum wage was pretty interesting as was the one on church versus state. The arguments on either side largely came from two sources: negotiations in council meetings and the press. The players in council had fairly predictable points of view with the king forcing a compromise, but more fascinating was the role the press had in reporting the results of the meetings (not having access to the discussions, just the outcomes). There are two newspapers, one reasonably fair and unemotional, and the other radical and biased (think AP vs. Fox News). This dichotomy demonstrated quite well how people can and will spin situations according to their own worldview, facts be damned. Modesitt's exploration of the proper limits of power and the role of economics in social change was not only compelling, but very appropriate with our real-world political situation.

While well-written and entertaining, this novel is a bit disappointing simply because the actual magic takes a back seat to politics. It felt a little more like a separate, parallel story set in the same universe as the other books than the conclusion to the entire series. If you are looking for a fantasy novel with a heavy dose of world-building and exposition, this is a great choice. If you are looking for an exciting adventure with battling magicians and powerful villains, maybe look elsewhere.

First Sentence:
On Lundi morning, the sixteenth of Juyn, Charyn was up earlier than usual, most likely because the day promised to be particularly hot, a reminder that the first days of spring, heralded by the Spring-Turn Ball, were some three months gone, and there wasn't that much of summer left.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)

On the surface this could be described as "just another fantasy novel." The main character is an unusually skilled and implausibly intelligent child named Kvothe raised in a troupe of talented roving actors and musicians, who after a tragedy becomes a homeless street urchin, eventually enrolling in a university for magic, and becoming a hero at the close while still not fulfilling his quest. Surrounding Kvothe is an endless series of one dimensional characters: doting parents, the wise teacher, bullies, beautiful women, best friends, eccentric professors, and the enigmatic love interest. Finally, the story is long and meandering—this copy came in at 722 pages and is only the first in a trilogy (of which the third book is yet to be released despite this one coming out in 2007). That said, it is anything but rote.

The Name of the Wind is an incredibly vivid fantasy in the vein of Raymond E. Feist or Brandon Sanderson. The rich world building weaves two plotlines (or three counting the overarching villain's backstory) fairly seamlessly, leaving the reader wanting more after each chapter. And while as mentioned above many of the notes are common, the writing is uncommonly organic and addicting throughout (despite the length I finished this in three days!). Emotional, engrossing, and exceptional, this is a true gem of the fantasy genre.

First Sentence:
It was Felling Night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci

Before reading this biography I'll admit I didn't know a lot about Leonardo da Vinci other than being the painter of the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man. Now I know he was a true Renaissance man—arguably the first Renaissance man—and a man ahead of his time. Centuries before minds like Newton, Galileo, Bernoulli, and Valsalva were experimenting, da Vinci was discovering concepts in a huge number of fields: relativity, motion, metallurgy, fluid dynamics, cartography, anatomy, optics, geology, ichnology, and even stagecraft just to name a few. The reason we don't associate Leonardo with all these topics is that he largely kept his discoveries in his personal notebooks rather than publishing. When he died these notebooks were scattered amongst collectors, not being catalogued and available for general study until well after other luminaries had rediscovered what he already knew.

Isaacson does an amazing job examining much of da Vinci's art in detail, discussing the approach to light and shade, perspective, and color and pointing out how the pursuit of science (especially anatomy and geology) was accurately reflected in his work. While impressed at the detail, I admit that after the first few my eyes would glaze over a bit as it all seemed a bit repetitive; I apparently don't have the right genes to truly appreciate art at this level. I much more enjoyed the history of the paintings, learning which pieces were actually finished (not many!) and which have been lost to time.

Many, many of Leonardo's notebook pages are reproduced here as well, and these are the true heart of the book. The detail in everything from horses in motion to deconstructed machines to muscular and skeletal body parts is both amazing and beautiful. His notes are on nearly every page as well, sometimes right over the drawings or in the margins. da Vinci wrote in mirror script (right to left) and in Italian, giving even a simple paragraph a look of beauty.

Isaacson's admiration for da Vinci's genius shines through nearly every page, causing a sense of wonder for the reader. Weighing in at over 500 pages this isn't a quick read, but well worth the time it takes. I could have done with less art criticism and more actual history (topics like his homosexuality and his intense rivalry with Michelangelo are only briefly covered, and the oft-changing politics of Europe at this time even less so) but this is still a wonderful book.

First Sentence:
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

For You to See the Stars, by Radney Foster

For You to See the Stars

Radney Foster is a genius. His album Del Rio, TX 1959 is one of those rare records where every single song is brilliant; four of the ten tracks made the Top 40 country charts ("Nobody Wins" was the highest, peaking at #2) but the other six are equally amazing. "A Fine Line" (not one of the four that charted) might be my favorite, but it is honestly difficult to rank them. I wore the CD out when it was released, and it remains a staple in my playlists today. Recently Foster played the Saxon Pub here in Austin (a great venue that attracts singer-songwriters; my wife and I have also seen The Band of Heathens, Walt Wilkins, and The Accidentals among others) and I was finally able to catch him live. Not only did he sing a great set, but he read excerpts from For You to See the Stars, a book of short stories he'd written as a companion to his album of the same name. After the show I snapped up a copy of the book and quickly devoured it and the accompanying music. Out of ten stories, five literally made me cry and one made me laugh out loud. All are exceptional. I truly hope Foster continues to write—both songs and books.

First Sentence (from the Foreword):
The bus was an old Eagle.

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