Wheel of Time #13: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

Read: 23 May, 2015

Where The Gathering Storm mostly focused on Rand and Egwene, Towers of Midnight brings us back to Perrin and Mat. Sanderson has explained that, while Jordan had originally intended only one more book, Sanderson felt that the material really needed three. And the divide in focus between these two books shows that they had originally been planned to be one. We saw the same problem in George R.R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons. And, as in Martin’s books, I felt it gave the two books an uneven feel.

That’s certainly not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Cruel as it may be to say, and sad as the precipitating event was, I find myself glad that Sanderson took over the series. I find that his version of the characters are more compelling, and are capable of a greater range of emotions. And while some of the very uncomfortable gender dynamics remain (I don’t think it would have been possible to eliminate them entirely, given the worldbuilding and characters Sanderson had to work with), they’ve been quite muted. The greatest change, though, is in the pacing. The books are just as long, but so much more exciting to read!

I have little to say about Towers of Midnight in particular, though. Things happen, the resolutions are all much as anticipated. In fact, I can only recall one moment in the book that bothered me. (SPOILERS: It was Noal’s death, which felt so meaningless. Mat tried so hard to come up with a phrasing that would protect his party from the Eelfin and Aelfin, yet left a gaping loophole. Noal was only put in the position of having to sacrifice himself because of this absurd mistake. Not only that, but we then learn that the time he bought the rest of the party was unneeded in the first place because Mat had the key to get out of Eelfinn/Aelfinn lands the whole time anyway! He was a somewhat interesting background character who just died, seemingly for no reason at all.)

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    Kon Kon Kokon, vol.1 by Koge-Donbo

    Read: 20 May, 2015

    A friend was moving some time ago (an embarrassingly long time ago) and offloaded a bunch of books – including a rather large collection of manga. Of course, this all sat in a closet until my recent major purge effort. I’ve gotten rid of several dozens of books in the last few days, but there are some that I wanted to read quickly before giving them away. The manga, which only takes 20 minutes or so per book, seemed like something I could at least skim through before the collection passed on to its next owners.

    I should probably preface this review by saying that I don’t generally read manga. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read manga before. So I’m sure that a lot of the conventions went right over my head, or maybe I just didn’t get it, I don’t know.

    The description on the back of the book tells us that this is a story of a young man, Ren, who very desperately wants to be the Cool Guy in school. He is met by a fox-girl, Kokon, who claims that he saved her many years previously and she has now come to repay him.

    So that’s the synopsis, and it’s perfectly fine. It has the potential to be interesting (which is why I picked the book out of the box to begin with). The problem is that these two plot points – Ren’s desire to be cool and Kokon’s desire to repay him – are mentioned over and over again on almost every page. With every new thing that happens, Ren freaks out that this will make him uncool, Kokon repeats her desire to repay him, things work out, Ren is gratified to learn that the awkward situation actually made him look cooler. Over and over again.

    The story telling is far too hyperactive for my tastes. Every emotion is presented as extreme. Meeting someone new leads to an inner monologue of questions: “Who is she?? Where does she come from?? Will she find out that I’m secretly a total nerd?? Will meeting her make me look uncool??”

    I can accept that some of this might be due to poor translation, but I suspect that it’s just bad storytelling.

    The artwork is fine. It doesn’t stand out, but it isn’t terrible, either. The main problem I had was keeping the characters straight, since they all rather look alike.

    I was intrigued by the concept of mythological creatures coming into a “real world” setting, but Kon Kon Kokon just fell flat for me.

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      Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

      Read: 15 May, 2015

      When the inventor of a revolutionary virtual universe (OASIS) dies, he wills his vast fortune and control over the OASIS to the first person who can find the ultimate easter egg.

      The novel is an unabashed ’80s field trip, or “nostalgia-porn” as some reviewers are putting it. If people who were kids/teenagers in the ’80s generally thought something was cool, it’s likely mentioned somewhere in this book (plus a few nerdgasms from later decades). Want to see an X-wing fighting a Firefly? Done. Want to see if a Leopardon could beat a Mechagodzilla? Covered.

      Of course, the book was written by the fantasies of a nerdy white boy, which is a shame. There was/is so much more to nerd culture that that demographic seems to have completely missed (and, being the group with the most media attention, they’ve managed to really control the narrative of nerd-dom as being a thing that belonged entirely to white boys in the pure Golden Days, which others are only now trying to infiltrate). Surely, despite the image of nerds manufactured by media like Revenge of the Nerds, Cline could have imaged a distant future where even women would have a place. Instead, the default characters are all white men.

      Aside from the default, there’s a Love Interest, two Samurai-obsessed Japanese boys (no surprise there), and three background mother-figures who are dead by the end of the third act (so the MC can have a little angst). It rather struck a nerve since, as a geek girl, the only role my friends could slot me into was the Love Interest. This meant that I had to be perfect – I had to be beautiful, I had to be funny, I had to be completely knowledgeable about every single little piece of trivia, and I had to do it all in a way that never made me “intimidating”. You know, all the things Art3mis is in Ready Player One. Of course, this was impossible. And every time I failed to live up to the Love Interest ideal, my right to membership in the clique was questioned. I couldn’t be a friend, so if I couldn’t be the perfect Love Interest, what was I even doing there? It was exhausting having to put in so much work just so that I could play some games and feel like I belonged for a little while.

      (SPOILERS: Yes, I know about Aech. I’m not really counting her/him, though, since the reveal happens right at the end, and it felt like he/she was just a “have POC/Woman in book” achievement for the author. Because Aech is a white male through the entire book save for one small part – after which she/he returns to being a white male – I count the character as such.)

      So, fine, that was kind of the reality for the ’80s and ’90s. The geeky girls had to fit that mould, or they had to learn to work their hobbies into their “totally normal, totally not a geek” social circles (which many did, as I discovered far too late for my child-self’s peace of mind). So I can buy the idea that a white guy who grew up in the ’80s just wouldn’t have noticed all the nerdy POCs and women around him if they weren’t love interests, but this novel is set decades into the future. Why is this still the case? Particularly when women and POC gamers are becoming so much more visible now? It’s frustrating.

      The off-hand transphobia was rather jarring as well. When Wade is talking to Art3mis about her meatspace identity, he mentions something about hoping she’s really a woman. Then clarifies that he means “a human female who has never had a sex-change operation.” I mean, just, why?

      There’s more, of course. It’s the Revenge of the Nerds demographic, where stalking a woman gets her to fall in love with you, where the Love Interest has to be perfect in every way except at the one skill – playing video games – that the protagonist most closely identifies with (lest she be intimidating, of course!), or that the Love Interest must be gorgeous but very insecure about her appearance (but don’t worry, she’s still gorgeous!! That’s extremely important and must be dwelled upon!!).

      It’s frustrating, because I really enjoyed the book. I loved the nostalgia (that was my childhood, too), I loved the set up of meeting someone in cyber-space and not being quite sure how to take it offline (my spouse and I met online – in fact, our most recent Date Night was spent playing Ironclad Tactics), and I loved the sheer “IDGAF ’cause this is just cool” playfulness. But at every turn, I felt like I was being written out of my own childhood, and it’s just rather depressing.

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        Huntress by Malinda Lo

        Read: 9 May, 2015

        Summer has failed to come, the land is starving, and strange monsters have begun to appear. When an invitation is received from the Fairy Queen, no one thinks it’s a coincidence.

        There was so much about this book that I liked, and so much that made me like the idea of the book, but I found that it just fell flat.

        For one thing, there’s the non-stock fantasy backdrop (in this case, Lo has created a classical Chinese-inspired culture). It was very refreshing to see, and would have been interesting if it had lasted for more than a few pages. As soon as the initial quest is established, the questing party heads off into the woods, leaving culture behind, and the remainder was indistinguishable from any other fantasy setting (particularly the fairy town, which had absolutely nothing of note to it at all).

        The lesbian romance was a draw as well, but its development felt somewhat clunky. By the end, when Taisin had to finally make the choice between her career or her feelings for Kaede, I had trouble caring much. Perhaps because the characters never felt particularly developed.

        I had some problems with the ending. (SPOILERS: The whole ending, for example. The “twist” that the Fairy Queen was actually Elowen’s real mother was not only predictable and overdone, it was also utterly uninteresting. I hadn’t been given any reason to care about either character, since they had occupied such a tiny fraction of what had been, essentially, a long walk through the woods punctuated by occasional attacks, that it felt completely unnecessary. To then send Kaede on yet another quest, apparently for no reason other than to add to the page length, felt rather silly.)

        Much of the book felt rushed and unpolished. The easiest example would be the baby the travellers met in Ento. As they approach and then enter the home, the baby is first crying, then begins to cry, then is asleep and coos as it wakes. It’s hard to imagine that this sort of thing survived the first edit.

        And, of course, there was the POV jumping. It was all over the place. I understand that Lo wasn’t going for a straight Third Person Limited, but the POV would sometimes jump several times a paragraph, and at least a few times I caught it jumping in a single sentence. It was too much, too abrupt, and it added little to the telling.

        My final major grip was Lo’s use of the word “for.” Over and over again, we saw the following construction: “So and so did this, for they wanted to.” Two sentences in a row might have the exact same construction. And it was doubly strange because it’s something that I associated with purple prose formality, while much of the narrative tone was more informal. Which, I suppose, is a bonus complaint: the tone-hopping.

        Overall, I enjoyed reading it, but I was disappointed by the overall sloppiness of the writing. I’d still recommend it, if only as short, fun read, but with too many shortcomings to really be taken for anything more.

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          Quest by Aaron Becker

          In our nightly family readings, we’ve been moving on to books with more words and fewer pictures, encouraging our child to use his imagination to “see” what was happening. Quest is the opposite – it’s book with lots of pictures and no words.

          We saw (and loved) the same thing in Owly & Wormy, but Quest is a bit different. While Owly & Wormy was something of a graphic novel, with a very defined storyline, Quest is a bit more flexible. The images, of two children brought into a magical land where they must find magical crayons to make a rainbow, are very stimulating to the imagination, and they leave a great deal room for the “reader” to add their own details. Who was the king who gave them their quest? What was wrong in the land before they made the rainbow? Why was the rainbow necessary? None of these things are explained by the book, and my son and I had great fun as I prompted him to come up with answers.

          This was also the perfect book at the perfect time, as a bad cold left me without my voice for the last few days. Thankfully, with Quest out from the library, my son was able to take over the “reading” in the evenings.

          The images are gorgeous, and full of detail. And, as I said, drawing them with such open ended interpretations was a great choice.

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            Wheel of Time #12: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

            Read: 28 April, 2015

            Sunk cost fallacy is a nasty trick. After reading so many books in the Wheel of Time, there was no way to stop. I’d invested too much of my life in this series (I began nearly a year ago), so how could I stop now? Even so, Crossroads of Twilight severely tried my resolve. Knife of Dreams was back to form (great ideas, interesting characters, but all surrounded by so much slog) and gave me the push to continue, but I have been getting rather annoyed with the series for a few books now.

            Which perfectly primed me for The Gathering Storm. This was a fantastic new addition to the series. Brandon Sanderson managed to revitalize the plot and get me excited about what was going on in a way that I just haven’t been in a while (and, honestly, other than a few peaks per book, haven’t been at all in this series). Best of all, he did it without allowing me to notice the change. The continuity between Jordan and Sanderson was impeccable, yet I suddenly found myself on the edge of my seat, fairly consistently from about 1/3 of the way into the book until its end. He did a great job of capitalizing on the character histories set up by Jordan to raise the stakes.

            The book is focused almost exclusively on Rand and Egwene. Egwene has been one of the characters who’s kept my interested throughout, and it was great to see her reunification of the White Tower.

            Rand, on the other hand, has been almost a sort of side character for most of the series. Here, however, Cadsuane’s warnings about his inability to laugh start to make a lot more sense as we spent more time in Rand’s head. His insistence that he feels nothing even while he does terrible things while overcome with anger felt very real and familiar (I’ve certainly known my fair share of young men who claim to be beings of pure rationality, far beyond the petty emotions of ordinary people – particularly women and minorities – even while it’s plainly obvious how completely they are deceiving themselves).

            (SPOILERS: I’m not sure how I feel about Rand’s sudden epiphany at the end. After such a slow descent, the speed with which he appears to recover at the climax of the novel seems a little forced. It works as a climax, and it’s certainly interesting to see Rand defeating the Dark One in himself rather than an external threat, but I dislike epiphanies in general. I reserve judgement until the next book, however, since we won’t see until then how well or how easily it takes.)

            I really enjoyed this addition to the series. As I said above, I was on the edge of my seat for most of it, which is no small feat when the conflicts were either internal (in Rand’s case) or rather complex (in Egwene’s). For the first time in a while, I’m really excited to begin the next one.

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              Bunnicula by Deborah Howe & James Howe

              Read: 21 April, 2015

              This is a small chapter book intended for early readers. I read it to my four-year-old son. We found the human characters to be rather ill-defined and boring, though I suppose that’s to be expected. The story is really about the three pets in the house – Harold, dog and narrator; Chester, the suspicious and excitable cat; and, of course, Bunnicula himself, the rabbit.

              In a delightful twist on the classic vampire tropes, Bunnicula doesn’t drink blood from people, but rather sucks the juice out of vegetables. My son found this absolutely hilarious, and spent about a week trying to suck all the juice from tomatoes, tangerines, and even a zucchini.

              Chester’s antics as he tries to prove that Bunnicula is a vampire were quite funny and we both had some good laughs. Things turned rather dark, however, when Chester failed and decided to try to kill Bunnicula instead. I was worried that this would disturb my son, though thankfully he was more focused on Harold’s efforts to save Bunnicula, and was glad that all three animals were able to (mostly) be friends by the end.

              All in all, we quite enjoyed the book. It name-dropped a lot of other books that we then got to talk about (Treasure IslandDracula), it had a lot of funny moments, and the premise of a vegan vampire was just absolutely charming.

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                Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner

                Full disclosure: I started following Warner’s blog a few years ago and corresponded a few times via e-mail regarding some questions I had. We’ve since become Facebook friends and I quite like her as a person. 

                Read: 16 April, 2015

                Warner’s excitement about Edward II is infectious. I found her blog through my general interest in medieval Europe, and soon found my new favourite monarch. So I was understandably excited for this book to come out. (Then, of course, had to wait eons because Amazon apparently didn’t get enough books to cover the pre-orders.)

                The writing style is, unfortunately, a little info-dumpy. I found it difficult to really get engrossed in the narrative when it felt more like reading someone’s notes than the final product. This is a very common problem in non-fiction, though, and is overshadowed by the book’s strengths.

                Notably, how well Warner is able to make Edward II (and Isabella, for that matter) seem like a real person – complex and sometimes idiosyncratic, a whole person. In particular, it was wonderful to see such a nuanced look at Edward’s relationship with his wife, Isabella.

                It was a shame that so much time was devoted to debunking the common myths surrounding Edward’s reign, but it had to be done. I was glad, also, that Warner didn’t take the easy route of simply dismissing them out of hand, instead taking the time to explain the arguments and present the evidence.

                I really enjoyed the numerous lists in the book – how much Edward’s household spent on cloth for a wedding, how much fish was consumed during a stay in a particular place, etc. I know it’s not for everyone, but it helped me visualize what these events might have looked like, it made them tangible and relatable; especially since Warner took pains to translate the lists into modern terms (how much would that amount of money have really meant at the time?).

                I definitely found it a worthwhile read, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the politics of medieval England, and particularly in the life of the first English monarch to be deposed.

                EDIT: I’ve heard rumours that Warner may be working on a biography of Isabella next, so I’m really excited for that!

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                  Wheel of Time #11: Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

                  Read: 6 April, 2015

                  This book has been a huge improvement over Crossroads of Twilight. Thank goodness, things have actually started happening again!

                  There have been a few improvement in other ways, too. Mat isn’t nearly as annoying now, perhaps because Tuon shuts him down quite quickly when he starts on something. Their “romance” is an interesting one – both are only attracted to each other because they have been told that it’s their fate. It’s good addition to all the destiny/cyclical time stuff we’ve been getting in this series, wherever it goes.

                  I’m not sure how I feel about the Faile/Perrin side quest. I think that having Faile’s insider view of the Shaido Aiel could have been much more interesting, and certainly the fracturing between Sevanna and the other Shaido wise women (perhaps wedged a little by Faile) could have been a really interesting direction. Instead, Faile is rendered utterly hopeless, despite her ability to amass a small army of followers, and her only real challenge seems to have been to balance keeping Rolan interested in her without getting raped until she could be saved by Perrin. On the whole, I found that a lot of pages were used up by their side quest without anything particularly interesting happening – despite the potential the situation created. All we got was yet another strong woman forced to learn humility, which is an irksome theme in this series.

                  Another plot line that’s getting rather short changed is Galad among the White Cloaks. I’m finding the power struggles and dark friend infiltrations among the White Cloaks intriguing, but we just get the odd scene here and there, and no real change to get to know the characters. The same goes for the fracturing of the Black Tower.

                  Elayne is pregnant and finally manages to take Andor. I think that her plotline in his book has bothered me more than any of the others. For one thing, there’s her pregnancy-induced mood swings. The effects of her pregnancy on the power (and visa versa) were interesting, but there was just such a big deal made of how unstable her emotions are now that she’s pregnant. It really just kept going on and on about how the servants are walking around on egg shells around her, and she’s forced to embrace the power to keep from randomly yelling at people. At least Jordan never blamed “being on the rag” for his female characters acting douchy, but this is honestly just as bad.

                  Then there’s how irresponsible she is. Going after dark friends with only a handful of followers on a moment’s notice when the city is under siege and counting on her leadership? I mean, really? Predictably, it all goes to hell and a whole lot of people die in her rescue – for which she says she feels no guilt whatsoever because that’s what they’re there for. Really. You’d think with all the angst thrown about in this series, a little could have been spared for Elayne.

                  Egwene’s plotline for this book seems to be all about learning to enjoy getting spanked, and boy does she get spanked. In fact, a lot of women get spanked in this book. I don’t know if I’m just noticing it more because someone mentioned the spanking recently, or if this book really does have a lot more spanking, but the female characters spend an awful lot of page-time getting their bottoms hit. Other than getting spanked, Egwene’s sole role for this book seems to be to discover just how broken the White Tower is.

                  As I was reading, it occurred to me that Portal Stones have been completely dropped from the series. I don’t think we’ve seen heard anything about them since Shadow Rising, even though they were being frequently noticed around the landscape prior to that. In fact, much seemed to be made of Rand’s ability to use them and then they just disappeared from the series, like Jordan was going somewhere with them and then changed his mind. Instead, the focus shifted over to Travelling (perhaps because it made it easier for characters to get around with Rand) and Tel’aran’rhiod.

                  This was Robert Jordan’s last book before he died, so it’ll be interesting to see how Brandon Sanderson’s work compares.

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                    Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

                    Read: 4 April, 2015

                    This was the first real chapter book I’ve read to my son, and it was quite neat to hear him ask to read more so we could find out what happens next. The only trouble we had was that – unrelated to the book – my son had something of an existential crisis as he suddenly understood the permanency of death. Since the book brings up Wilbur’s fate as a side of bacon quite a bit, we had to stop reading for a few weeks until the crisis was over.

                    For reading out loud, I really enjoyed how distinctive each character felt. All of Templeton’s lines felt like Templeton, and all of Charlotte’s lines felt like Charlotte. It made it very easy for me both to know instantly who was talking, and to come up with unique voices to fit each character. It made the book very performable.

                    When we were done, I asked my son what his favourite part was. He said that it was at the beginning of the book where Fern is caring for Wilbur like a baby (feeding him from a bottle and pushing him around in a pram). He didn’t like that Charlotte died, but thought it was good that Wilbur had her daughters and granddaughters as friends.

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