Catching Up: Books
I always have the best of intentions to remain current with my reviews, and yet half a year has gone by again with nary a one. So it goes. Let's see what we can do to catch up, shall we?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: The friend who gave me my copy of Manhood for Amateurs also gave me this one. Oscar de Leon is an overweight, painfully nerdy Dominican-American boy, and, as you might guess from the title, this is his story. But it's also the story of his sister, his mother, and his grandparents--the Cabral family, suffering under the weight of a generations-long fukú--a Dominican word for "curse." It's also the story of the Dominican Republic, itself, with long asides and footnotes about the country and life under Trujillo regime. It's also the story of the Dominican immigrant experience in New York. It's a lot of things. Though I think the style--making heavy use of footnotes, as I mentioned--and the interjection of Dominican slang, and the density of science fiction and fantasy references (some of which even I had to look up) might serve to alienate some readers, it's nonetheless a powerful and moving story. (Read 8/22/11 - 10/26/11.)
The Chalion Series, by Lois McMaster Bujold: From reading her Vorkosigan novels, I already knew that Bujold was adept at creating both interesting, well-rounded characters and intriguing worlds, but I wasn't sure how it would translate to a fantasy setting. As it turned out, not unlike a few of her Vorkosigan stories (Cetaganda and Falling Free come to mind), the setting is what I found most captivating about this series. The three loosely connected novels (The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) explore different facets of what I found to be a unique cosmology, wherein gods are real but can only act through humans who willingly consent. Bujold won the Hugo for the second one, while I personally enjoyed the first the most, but all three are well worth the read. (Read 10/27/11 -12/25/11.)
The Desert Spear, by Peter V. Brett: I read the first book in this series back in 2010 and immediately groaned at the prospect of having to wait. Of course, in the meantime I found ways to occupy myself, but I was pretty happy when the same coworker who loaned me his copy of The Warded Man dropped the sequel on my desk. Where the first book spread its focus between three main characters--Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer--this one spends much of the first half developing the backstory of a fourth: Jardir, the desert leader we met in the first book. Jardir's sections were reminded me a bit of Dune and the Aiel portions of The Wheel of Time. In fact, thinking back over the series so far I would say that Robert Jordan seems to be a pretty apt comparison, though without the endless branching and subplot after subplot after subplot. Indeed, everything I loved about The Wheel of Time when I started that series (as a teenager, mind you) seems to be present here, and reading this series kind of makes me feel like a kid again. I'm very much looking forward to the third book.
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher: I've now finished the first six of these books and I think I can fairly say that I'm going to get to all of them eventually. The four that I read since I last reviewed the series (Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites) follow the same formula as the first two, and it's predictable enough that perhaps reading a bunch back to back isn't the best way to go, but I found that even after six of essentially the same book, I care about the characters and am interested to go back for more. (Read 1/15/12 - 2/8/12.)
Codex Alera, by Jim Butcher: Despite what I said about reading a bunch of Jim Butcher's books in succession, I actually went and read ten of them in under a month. The same coworker who loaned me the first two Dresden books also let me read his copy of The Furies of Calderon, after which I went out and bought Kindle copies of the rest of the series (Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury). The way the series follows the life and career of the protagonist reminded me a bit of Forester's Hornblower novels, though of course the setting is completely different. I will say that Butcher has a few writing tics that become apparent after reading a bunch of his books--he loves to end chapters in cliffhangers, for examples, or with people passing out--but he also plots tightly and writes memorable characters. The fact that I blazed through this entire series in just over two weeks ought to say something about how much I enjoyed it.
The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie: Just before I started reading this series, I solicited opinions about it on Google+, and this is one of the responses I got: "I think Abercrombie is a very good writer -- from a style perspective -- and very enjoyable, but he's gratuitously cruel to both his characters and audience expectations." Having finished it now, I completely agree. In my opinion, Abercrombie is a very skilled writer, and it's clear that with this series he was trying to subvert the tropes of the high fantasy genre and play off the audience's expectations in order to do something novel. And he succeeds in doing that, but at the end of it all I sort of felt like I'd been toyed with. In this way he reminded me a bit of China Miéville, though the series as a whole felt less like a raised middle finger than Perdido Street Station did, at least to me. I found the world-building to be first-rate--what backstory we did get on the history of the world was, for me, the most interesting part of the series, and I found myself wishing I could have read that story instead. Intellectually I appreciated what he did here, but I don't see myself returning to this series. (Comprises The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings. Read 2/9/2012 - 2/22/2012.)
The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara: This one has been on my list for a long time, and I'm happy I finally took the time to read it. I suspect that an interest in the Civil War may be a prerequisite for enjoying this story, but I found Michael Shaara's account of the Battle of Gettysburg to be gripping, and all the more so for how human he made it. Unlike the historical fiction I often read, this story is based on real events and, as much as possible, on the writings of the men who were actually there. Thus, there isn't much larger narrative to the story--that has to come from the knowledge the reader brings with him. Given that the book chronicles only the battle itself and the events immediately preceding and following it, I think a lot of people wouldn't find it to their liking. I, on the other hand, was riveted. Not only did Shaara bring the events of the battle to life, but in presenting it from the point of view of the men who took part in it, he painted an amazing picture of the end of the war. (Read 2/27/12 - 3/1/12.)
By Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe’s Eagle was the first of the Sharpe novels to be written, and it’s the second in the chronology of the “main” series (at least, as defined by Penguin Books). Picking up some months after the events of Sharpe’s Rifles, this episode finds the title character and his company attached to the South Essex Battalion for the relatively routine assignment of destroying a Spanish bridge in order to keep it from being used by the French. Unfortunately, both his new battalion and the Spanish unit that accompanies them are led by incompetents, officers who bought their commissions rather than being promoted on merit. (This is, as Cornwell makes clear, the rule rather than the exception in the Royal Army of the Napoleonic era.) Sharpe finds himself caught in an unnecessary battle, and though he and his men acquit themselves well, the South Essex as a whole is mismanaged and defeated, and suffer the ultimate dishonor of losing their regimental colors. Sharpe is forced to fight his way clear of the debacle, and in order to save both his career and his unit’s honor, vows to make up for the loss of the South Essex’s flag by doing something that’s never been done before: capturing a French standard, the eagle of the title. Along the way, he must outwit not only his enemies but the schemes and betrayals of the South Essex’s commander and his foppish nephew, as well.
What was most interesting to me about Sharpe’s Eagle was how consistent the tone and characters were with what I saw in Sharpe’s Rifles. Mind you, although the books are adjacent in the chronology of the series, seven years and six other novels actually came between the writing of the two. I might have thought that a gap like that would be problematic, but this episode flows directly from the previous as though they were chapters in a single book. That’s more of a testament to Rifles than Eagle, of course, but it certainly shows the truth of the claim that where you start this series isn’t terribly important.
Everything I liked about Rifles is present in Eagle--the vivid battles, the camaraderie between the men, the friendship between Sharpe and Harper, and the wonderfully flawed character of Sharpe, himself--so in that respect it was a successful story for me. If it didn’t add much more, that’s alright because I don’t really need--or want--anything else.
I tell you: it’s going to take some effort on my part to space out this series and read other stuff in between episodes.
Started: 4/26/2010 | Finished: 5/1/2010
By Bernard Cornwell
I think that my introduction to the Sharpe novels came from Wikipedia, of all places. I was reading the Horatio Hornblower article, which noted near the bottom that it had inspired Bernard Cornwell's series. Being a pretty big fan of the Hornblower series, I put the Sharpe series on my list as something to check out. The series comprises 24 books, and it was a little difficult to figure out which one to start with. The first written was Sharpe's Eagle, and the first in the main character's chronology is Sharpe's Tiger. This one, Sharpe's Rifles, is the first in what I gather is considered the "main" series--at least, the copy I picked up has a big "1" on the spine. In any event, supposedly each novel stands more or less on its own, so the particular starting point may not matter much.
Having finished this first volume, I can see the comparison to the Hornblower novels. Both Richard Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower are British military officers during the Napoleonic Wars. Both suffer from a lack of the wealth and influence common to officers of their day--consequently, both are relatively socially awkward. Both turn out to be brilliant commanders. They're even relatively close in age. Both series feature historical scenery and a lot of action, and the novels in each are fun and easy to read.
On the other hand, there's also a fair amount to distinguish Sharpe from Hornblower, the most obvious point being that Sharpe is in the Army rather than the Navy. Clearly, that means a difference in milieu--battles on land instead of at sea--but there's a difference in culture as well. One thing that Forester commented on often in his series was the relative indiscipline of sailors in the Royal Navy as opposed to the strict rank and file of the Army. Despite an attempted mutiny at the outset of Sharpe's Rifles, that discipline is quite apparent. And it makes sense--when your life and the success of your mission depends on your entire group being able to maneuver in exact formation, to line up across from your enemy and keep standing there, shoulder to shoulder, while being shot at, well-trained and tightly disciplined soldiers are necessary. It gives the characters in Sharpe's Rifles a harder edge than the ones in the Hornblower novels. Too, a battle at sea doesn't leave much visible evidence--ships sink and debris soon scatters. When the smoke clears after an infantry battle, the bodies of fallen soldiers and scars on the land and buildings stay around, and it's exactly that sort of scene that this novel opens with. All of this combines to give Sharpe's Rifles a gritter, more hard-scrabble feel than anything in the Hornblower series.
As I mentioned, I found this book to be quite enjoyable, and a pretty quick read. I'll definitely be continuing the series, and I look forward to discovering more about the life and adventures of Richard Sharpe.
Started: 1/16/2010 | Finished: 1/22/2010
By Patrick O'Brian
I am coming to like this series pretty well. I think I still do prefer the Hornblower novels, but these books do have a lot to offer. For one thing, the characters seem a bit more three-dimensional than Forester's. In Post Captain, for example, a fair amount of the beginning of the book has to do with events on shore while Jack Aubrey is waiting for a new command. It seems like that might detract from the story, being primarily a naval adventure, but watching Jack and Stephen as they meet the women they fall in love with, for example, or following Jack's attempts to avoid debtor's prison really serves to round out the characters. And, like the previous episode, there is plenty of action to go around, both at sea and ashore. My only complaint is that there wasn't much in the way of denouement. It's a minor flaw, though, given the structure of the book, and really all it did was make me jump right into the next one.
Started: 11/6/2007 | Finished: 11/18/2007
Master and Commander
By Patrick O'Brian
There's an obvious comparison between this series and C. S. Forester's Hornblower series. Both follow the career of a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars. Still, they are separate works. For one thing, O'Brian's Jack Aubrey is a very different sort of person from Forester's Horatio Hornblower. Where Hornblower is reserved and intellectual, Aubrey is much more rough around the edges, rambunctious and appreciative of wine and song. I suppose that in some ways Aubrey is the anti-Hornblower. I think I prefer Forester's series, in part because of the characters but also in part because, oddly enough, O'Brian's prose seems more stilted and archaic, despite having been written some thirty-odd years later. Still, I did enjoy this book overall and will be continuing the series, at the very least until I run through the ones I already have.
Started: 7/17/2007 | Finished: 8/18/2007
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
By C. S. Forester
The final Hornblower novel, alas. As you know, I've really enjoyed this series, so I'm a bit sad to come to its end. This last book sees Hornblower as the admiral in command of the West Indian fleet. Like many of the later-written books in the series--especially Mr. Midshipman Hornblower this one is highly episodic in structure. Each chapter presents a more or less unrelated scenario to the previous one, and a lot of time passes in between chapters. As with any episodic story, this made for a fair amount of action but not much in the way of a cohesive narrative arc. Admiral Hornblower certainly wasn't my favorite, but even at that I still enjoyed it enough that I'd say it made for a decent capstone to a great series.
Started: 6/18/2006 | Finished: 6/27/2006
By C. S. Forester
This has got to be the most consistently good series I've ever read. Ten books in and I've enjoyed every one. I'm even a little sad that there's only one left. Anyway, I'd mostly add all of the same praise to this book as I did with the rest. The one thing that sticks out in my mind about Lord Hornblower is that the tragic moments moved me quite a bit more than the previous books. Whether that's because the writing was more effective or just because I've had more time to become invested in the characters, I'm not sure.
Started: 4/7/2006 | Finished: 4/11/2006
By C. S. Forester
I think what keeps bringing me back to this series--aside from the fact that I already own it--is the characterization. Hornblower is keenly aware of himself and the events of his life so, rather than each story standing alone, the echoes of all of his past adventures continue to be heard as he matures. You get to see how he grows. It's really great writing. Plus, you get to read lots of cool nautical terms like "sternsheets" and "mizzentop."
Started: 2/12/2006 | Finished: 2/22/2006
By C. S. Forester
The eighth Hornblower book is a bit different from the others in that almost none of the story takes place on a ship. The book opens with Hornblower and his men in a French prison, and the bulk of the novel is concerned with his escape and his travels home. There's less action, but it turns out that instead of making the book boring this allows for a more character-driven story. I think by the end of Flying Colours I had a much clearer picture of Horatio Hornblower, the man, than ever before. I find that I feel toward him much the same way as one of the characters in this book--I can't help liking him, despite the fact that he's not very likeable. Three books are left and I'm looking forward to them.
Started: 1/28/2006 | Finished: 1/29/2006
Ship of the Line
By C. S. Forester
I'm feeling a little irritated with this book right now because I had intended on reading a biography of George Washington next, but because Ship of the Line ends with a cliffhanger I had to leave my copy of His Excellency on my nightstand and continue on with the next Hornblower novel. This one wasn't as good as the previous book, Beat to Quarters, but it managed to drag me in enough that I just had to know how things turned out after the events in the final scene.
Started: 1/16/2006 | Finished: 1/28/2006