Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Read: 15 July, 2018

Set in the early part of the 19th century, this book does a magnificent job of capturing the narrative style and tone of books from that period. Of course, that means that it’s a bit of a slog – at around 800 pages, this book makes a great door stopper, and the pacing is very slow.

However, I found that listening to it on audiobook was perfect. I got to sit back, relax, and absorb the atmosphere of the period and worldbuilding – which is what most of this book is. There is a rescue/defeat the baddy near the end, but it’s not particularly climactic. For the most part, the book is about creating an alternate 19th century England with plausible magic.

I adored the worldbuilding. Clarke did a really good job of blending magic into the real world world history. Best of all, she did so in such a very British way – with a magic system that draws from both the common fairy stories as well as the more “noble” pursuit of alchemy.

The world felt complex and alive, and the slowness of the narrative gives the reader a change to settle into it. I do, however, recommend the audiobook, as the book is heavy enough to put wrists at risk.

    Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

    Read: 9 July, 2018

    I’ve read a few of the Star Wars books now, and I haven’t been overly impressed. For the most part, the books are fine, but I wouldn’t read them if they weren’t Star Wars.

    This one, however… this is the Star Wars book I’ve been waiting for.

    Both main characters – Thane and Ciena – start off believing in the Empire. They willingly enter the academy, even working hard to get there. They fight on the Empire’s side. Throughout, their reasons are believable. Even when Thane becomes disillusioned, Ciena stays on, making excuses for the bad side of the Empire, and overemphasising the good. Even when the evil of the Empire becomes more visible and personal, Ciena’s reaction is so recognisably human.

    It’s so timely (perhaps it’s always timely) to see how good people can serve evil power structures, and how interlaced their reasons can be.

    I enjoyed seeing the major events of episodes 4-6 again through new eyes. Finally, we get a frank discussion of the Death Star, and the moral calculus that went into destroying such a powerful weapon at the cost of so very many lives.

    I would have enjoyed Lost Stars without it being set in the Star Wars universe. As it is, that only makes it better.

      Throne of Glass #2: Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas

      Read: 6 July, 2018

      Friend and I are still deep in discussions about the pronunciation of Chaol. Since the guide Maas provides gives it as “Kay-all”, I started calling him “Kale”, which then led to calling him “Salad”.

      I noticed a definite improvement in the storytelling from the first book. The anachronistic elements (whatever that means in a fantasy setting) that bothered me in Throne of Glass – like the pool table – are entirely absent here. Characters are also starting to get a bit more depth, and I appreciated how raw Celaena’s emotions were.

      I like how much more of the worldbuilding is evident in this book. I’m still rather uncertain about how each part connects (I’d like more details on the Crochan family, for example), but the stitches are starting to form and I’m now fairly well invested in finding out.

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        In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

        Read: 24 June, 2018

        This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

        I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

        I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

          Throne of Glass #1: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

          Read: 19 June, 2018

          A friend is a huge fan of this series and has been singing its praises for long enough that my curiosity was piqued.

          When I began reading, I complained about the main character. She struck me as a fairly weak character – petty, arbitrary, made choices that didn’t make a whole lot of sense in context. My friend agreed that she’s a tough character to like, “but she grows on you.” More than that, however, she explained that Celaena’s big flaw is her ego – she can’t make the “right” choice in a given situation because she has to be seen to be the best. Once it was phrased that way, Celaena started to make sense; she wasn’t being arbitrary, she was being flawed. And, honestly, I liked her a lot better once I had a better grasp of who she was.

          My friend and I both agreed that Chaol is an unfortunate name. The pronunciation guide says it should be said “Kay-all”. Which is better than the “Chay-ole” I had going, but is still rather unattractive. Here’s Celaena swooning off this gorgeous guy and his name is Kale? Hm. My friend proposed pronouncing it as “Cole”, which suited much better.

          The book is fluff – the characters do spend rather more time on romance and gowns than a life-or-death struggle strictly warrants, and the worldbuilding could do with some more work. There’s also not a whole lot going on thematically. And while this may not be strictly fair, I really struggled with a fantasy setting that has a billiards table.

          That said, it’s compelling fluff. The book is a page-turner and, however frustrating they could be, I really did care about the main characters by the big climax.

          I might not have given this a chance without my friend’s passion to prod me, but I enjoyed it, and I definitely will be seeking out the sequels.

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            Tensorate #2: The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

            Read: 11 June, 2018

            One of my complaints about The Black Tides of Heaven is that the story was something of a whirlwind – we were whisked through the lives of Akeha and Mokoya, catching only glimpses along the way. This has been fixed in Red Threads, the entire plot of which takes place in only a handful of days. And while the goal of Black Tides was somewhat nebulous, Red Threads establishes its plot from the very first scene. It made for much tighter story.

            I loved the exploration of gender in Black Tides, in which each character is gender neutral until they choose their gender for themselves. With that already established, we get a look at how imposed identity can clash with self-identity, as Rider is misgendered by another character.

            Red Threads spent a lot more time delving into the magic system (the ‘Slack’) and how it works. It was nice to get a bit more detail, and I especially liked that different cultures might have completely different understandings of the same magic.

            My main complaint is the same as it was for Black Tides – so much of the story could be explored in much more depth. I want to know more about Rider, I want to know more about their past, I want to know more about what Mokoya is thinking… Things happen, and it’s clear that Yang has a much bigger story imagined in their head, but those details just don’t seem to be making it down onto the page. So while I’ve enjoyed every bit of this series that I’ve read, I’m frustrated that the world isn’t coming to life for me the way it clearly is for the author.

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              Matilda by Roald Dahl

              Read: 7 June, 2018

              Overall, my seven-year-old and I found this to be an enjoyable read, though it lacked focus. The “main plot” doesn’t get started until about halfway through, and Matilda suddenly gets magical powers (the first hint of the supernatural) just a few chapters from the end.

              At the same time, the chapters don’t quite work for this to be an episodic type of story. Several stories span more than one chapter, and chapter lengths vary quite a bit – which meant that some nights we read long enough for my throat to get sore, while other nights we barely seemed to read at all.

              But for all that, the story is amusing, and I loved Matilda’s “get even” attitude. Both my kid and I thoroughly enjoyed the over-the-top baddies.

                (((Semitism))) by Jonathan Weisman

                Read: 3 June, 2018

                This book reads like an open letter to prominent Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. It’s a call to action, an entreaty to re-expand activities beyond Israel and to take a meaningful stand against hate and the rise of fascism in the United States.

                This is a timely book – perhaps even a little too timely, as several points made are no longer true (such as the discussion of Trump failing to move the US embassy to Jerusalem). But while these minor points have weakened, the overall rise of fascism is a well-documented trend.

                The thesis of the book could have used a little tightening – while interesting throughout, it did meander a little, and it occasionally took some work to grasp what an argument was getting at.

                That said, I liked that Weisman’s focus went beyond anti-Semitism, tackling the interconnectedness of hate. No small part of the book is devoted to GamerGate, which was the canary in the coal mine as far as many in the internet generation are concerned. The call to action, therefore, is for Jewish organisations to use their expertise and resources to take a leadership position in the fight against hate.

                This is an important read. Weisman doesn’t provide answers (and, in fact, acknowledges throughout that there are sometimes no good responses), but the call for victimised communities to band together is essential.

                  Leia, Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) by Claudia Gray

                  Read: 26 May, 2018

                  This is a prequel to A New Hope, giving us a glimpse of Leia’s journey into the resistance.

                  I had a little trouble getting into this book, though I don’t think it’s necessarily the book’s fault. The tone was so very much like the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’d just finished reading Mirror Dance, that I found it very disappointing. But if I judged all science fiction/space operas on the Bujold scale, I’d just be condemning myself to a life of disappointment.

                  As it was, the book is fine. Absolutely fine. Doubly fine for YA. Once I was able to get over the fact that this wasn’t written by Bujold, I found myself enjoying it a lot more.

                  I liked the bracketing of the story – the whole plot happens in between the ceremony where Leia announces the challenges she will undertake to prove herself as heir to the throne, and the ceremony where her challenges have been completed. Integrating Leia’s coming of age into her actual coming of age ceremony was a nice little touch. It worked for me.

                  Leia in A New Hope was kickass. She was the regal princess, she was the composed diplomat who could stand up to Tarkin, and she was the fighter who could hold her own with a blaster and didn’t hesitate to jump into a garbage compacter. She was everything (#LifeGoals). This book did a pretty good job of getting her to that point. We see her working hard to become that badass, and her motivations always struck true to the character I got to know in the movies.

                  Holdo was a tantalising character in The Last Jedi. The movie made it clear that she was close with Leia, and that the two women trusted each other, yet we got so little else about her. So it was neat to see so much more of her here. I also found that her attitude toward danger and fighting for justice added some weight to her actions in the movie. I’m looking forward to it coming to Netflix so I can watch it again, this time knowing so much more about her character.

                  Reading this as a prequel added a great deal of subtext. There was a certain fatalism to reading the descriptions of Alderaan, knowing that the planet – and everyone on it – will soon be gone. In particular, I found it difficult to read about Leia’s relationship with Kier. I know he isn’t in the movies, so I was just waiting for him to either betray her or die (or both). And, of course, the eventual destruction of Alderaan added so much to weight to Leia’s disagreement with Kier about protecting the planet (and to Leia’s choice to sacrifice the planet in A New Hope).

                  Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if I weren’t already invested in the characters. I’m glad for the insights, such as they were, into Leia and Holdo, as well as the Star Wars universe as a whole, though I would have liked a little more substance.

                    The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

                    Read: 15 May, 2018

                    I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

                    Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

                    Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

                    On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

                    Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.