Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Fifth Elephant

The Fifth Elephant
by Terry Pratchett

They say that diplomacy is a gentle art. That its finest practitioners are subtle, sophisticated individuals for whom nuance and subtext are meat and drink. And that mastering it is a lifetime's work. But you do need a certain inclination in that direction. It's not something you can just pick up on the job. 
Which is a shame if you find yourself dropped unaccountably into a position of some significant diplomatic responsibility. If you don't really do diplomacy or haven't been to school with the right foreign bigwigs or aren't even sure whether a nod is as good as a wink to anyone, sighted or otherwise, then things are likely to go wrong. It's just a question of how badly...

My Reaction:
Has it really been over three years since we read Jingo (the previous book in this series)?  I can't believe how fast the time goes...

I've only ever read Pratchett as a shared, read-aloud experience, and I think we usually select one of his novels at Donald's suggestion.  I enjoy Pratchett's work while I'm reading it, but it doesn't seem to leave a lasting impression on me, other than a vague memory of "generally amusing".  Part of the problem is that I just don't connect with his work emotionally, for some reason.  (Well, maybe with poor little Gaspode... What can I say?  I have a soft spot for dogs!)

So, knowing how I typically react to Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant was as expected.  It was entertaining.  Parts of it were very funny.  I enjoyed reading it (except maybe for a few parts, such as some of the comparatively dull dwarf stuff... and Angua's angst, which merely annoyed me, because evidently I'm not a huge Angua fan).

It was a good experience, all told-- but no matter how many of these books I read, I don't think I'll ever feel like I truly care about most of these characters or think about them unprompted in my daily life, the way you do with some of your favorite books and characters.

The next time Donald suggests Pratchett, I'll probably give my usual mental shrug.  "Eh, yeah, ok.  Might as well."  I'm sure I'll enjoy it once we're reading, but the prospect won't fill me with great excitement, because it never does!  (I even feel a little guilty about it, but there it is!)

However, because I do enjoy (most of) the reading in the moment, I'll grant this one 3.75 stars and round up to four.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness
(Lord Peter Wimsey #2)

by Dorothy L. Sayers

When blood stains his family name, Lord Peter fights to save what he holds most dear. 
After three months in Corsica, Lord Peter Wimsey has begun to forget that the gray, dangerous moors of England ever existed. But traveling through Paris, he receives a shock that jolts him back to reality. He sees it in the headlines splashed across every English paper—his brother Gerald has been arrested for murder.
The trouble began at the family estate in Yorkshire, where Gerald was hunting with the man soon to be his brother-in-law, Captain Denis Cathcart. One night, Gerald confronts Cathcart with allegations about his unsavory past, leading the captain to call off the wedding. Just a few hours later, Cathcart is dead, with Gerald presumed to be the only person who could have fired the fatal shot. The clock is ticking, and only England’s premier sleuth can get to the bottom of this murky mystery.

My Reaction (with marked SPOILERS):
(This was another shared read with Donald.)

This is the third "Lord Peter" book we've read. The first in the series, Whose Body?, didn't make a lasting impression on me, for some reason. I can barely remember anything about it at all, good or bad. (This may say as much about my memory as it does about the book.) More recently, we read a collection of short stories, which I enjoyed (on the whole), but which skips down the entire chronology of the novels (and obviously is made up of short stories, which I don't usually like quite as much as novels).

In brief, this was enjoyable in spots, a little less so in others. I'm happy enough to continue the series, especially since I understand that some of the strongest books are yet to come.

I found it more than a bit ridiculous that...

Um, spoiler alert? this group of people (including Lord Peter himself!), cheating at cards was apparently more scandalous and less understandable/forgivable than cheating on your spouse. I'm not at all impressed by that, if I'm honest, and it has slightly lowered my good opinion of Wimsey, for the moment. Maybe he'll redeem himself in the next book.

While a particular plot point... Hm.

Time for another SPOILER ALERT!

As I was saying, while a particular plot point (the fact that the "murder" wasn't actually a murder at all) may have been relatively fresh and original when this was written, it doesn't have quite the same element of surprise, these days.  Add to that the fact that I don't love it when murder mysteries turn out that way and we have another minor strike against this book, from my point of view. That said, if you don't guess what's happened, you get all the same fun of trying to unravel the mystery, no matter what the solution turns out to be.

To end on a positive note, I enjoyed the overall feel of the book-- especially the bright spots of humor. As has been said before, Lord Peter is a more intelligent and capable version of Bertie Wooster, which is a selling point for the Wodehouse fans among us. He even has his own type of Jeeves in the unflappable Bunter!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lucky Jim

Lucky Jim
by Kingsley Amis

Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Kingsley Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics with whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy.

My Reaction:
(Shared read with Donald.)

I chose this novel from one of those lists of "best humorous fiction", possibly suggestions for fans of P.G. Wodehouse. Apparently, it's a classic. The funniest novel of the last century! (Or latter half of the last century, depending on who's making the list...)

Hm. Well, skimming some reviews, it's clear that I'm not the only one who feels slightly befuddled by its generally high ranking. Now, to be fair, there are amusing moments, but it's simply nowhere near as funny as you'd expect it to be, based on its sterling reputation.

Maybe the comparisons to Wodehouse threw me off... (Wodehouse is better, by many magnitudes. And he manages hilarity without being nasty or mean-spirited, which is even more impressive!)

Lucky Jim has its good points, but I don't think it's a masterpiece. I didn't love it, and it doesn't inspire me to read more from this author.

Oh, and the face-making gimmick got old. Remembering all the time I wasted trying to picture the latest weird face he was making, I'm considering docking the book another star... But no, I'll be generous and stay with three out of five. (Yes, it's a generous three-star rating. You don't realize how tempting it was to shrug and just skim the last half of the book.)

Monday, March 12, 2018

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

In the year 2045, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win—and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read with Donald.  We also listened to the 372 Pages We'll Never Get Back "podcast book club" from Rifftrax's Michael J. Nelson and Conor Lastowka.)

Let me preface this by saying that I was a child in the 80s (and a teen in the 90s)-- and what's more, I get the appeal of nostalgia.  (And yes, I am convinced that in the 80s-- and honestly, many other decades-- music was better, on average, than what I hear on the radio now.)

I'm also an unashamed consumer of many "nerdy" franchises.  (Not that anyone is ashamed of being a nerd/geek in the modern world.  At least some version of so-called "nerdiness" has been cool for quite some time, now.  It's all pretty mainstream...)

However, even with my nerdy 80's-kid cred, I felt no warm fuzzies while reading this book, and I'm amazed that it's so beloved.  (After Fifty Shades of Grey, I should've known better...)

Admittedly, I've never been much of a gamer, but I don't think it would've made much of a difference if I had been.  The problem is, pop culture references can only take you so far.  There needs to be something of substance to make a novel good, and this one is lacking.

The concept of the OASIS is interesting (though not exactly groundbreaking), but the characters were not as likeable as they're clearly supposed to be, the writing was rife with "telling, not showing", the numerous gods were falling over themselves to leap from their varied machines... Do I really need to go on?  It's all been detailed in other reviews.

Essentially, a glut of references to the nerd culture of the 80s (and sometimes 70s, 90s, etc.) is apparently supposed to be enough to sustain an entire novel.  Well, it's not.  It's not enough to make me love or even like the characters.  It's not enough to add drama or a sense of purpose.  It's not enough to make sense of this dystopian future where the world is a steaming pile of crap just a few years from GAME OVER-- which doesn't seem to stop people from living almost their entire lives hooked into some glittering digital utopia.  (Where is the food coming from?  The OASIS seems to run pretty smoothly, considering the energy crisis... Who's making all these "rigs" that everyone has?)

Ugh.  I just don't get this book's popularity, at all.  (And that's before I factor in the author's pompous atheist screed, creepy masturbation manifesto, and the unnecessary inclusion of "UberBetty".  Dude. Some stuff you really ought to just keep to yourself.)

It's just not good!

(Also, how does one categorize this?  Apart from some adult themes, it has a YA vibe, and the main characters are young adults, but most of the references-- the only possible reason to read this thing-- are clearly aimed at an older audience who would have been young adults/children/conscious in the 1980s.)

That said, I suspect that the movie-making professionals will manage to make the movie better than the book.  For one thing, it would be difficult not to improve upon the source material... For another, it seems likely that the story (such as it is) will work better on screen than in writing.  It should be much easier to stack up the layers of visual and audio references.  I'll probably see it, at some point, just out of curiosity.  Er, well, unless the reviews are awful...

Reading about someone playing "classic" video games and reciting movie dialogue line by tedious line was not enjoyable; let's see if Spielberg and co. can make watching it any more palatable.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hot Water

by P.G. Wodehouse

At French seaside Château Blissac, J. Wellington Gedge from California wants to go home. His larger richer wife wants him to be a Paris Ambassador, blackmails Senator Opal, publicly dry, with a letter to his bootlegger in her safe. Jewels attract criminals tough 'Soup' Slattery and 'Oily' Carlisle, who mourn female partners here unknown.

Amid confusion of assumed identities and one real undercover detective, 'Packy' Patrick Franklyn, rich ex-Yale footballer, wants Jane Opal to be happy. Jane's fiancé poor writer 'Egg' Blair Eggleston is touted by Packy's fiancée culture-lofty Lady Beatrice Bracken. Rakish 'Veek' Vicomte de Blissac returns for holiday festival where men drink, fight, and find love-- or at least reward from safe.

My Reaction:
First, this was a shared read with Donald.  Any time I read Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett, or Donald Westlake, it's almost certainly going to have been a "shared reading".  Some books are just much better when read aloud!

If you generally like Wodehouse, you'll like this book, too.  I wouldn't say it was one of my personal favorites (maybe a bit repetitive at times, too many American characters, lacking the typical English country house setting and the cozily familiar recurring characters), but it was still very good.

Hot Water is light and funny, with all the twisty plotting, witty humor, and charm you'd expect from the author.