Discuss and rate the last thing you read

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I'm currently working my way through Anna Karenina.

It is a very dry book and I can't remember half the character names. But it's a good Russian novel. That's all I can really say about it right now.

CM156:
I'm currently working my way through Anna Karenina.

It is a very dry book and I can't remember half the character names. But it's a good Russian novel. That's all I can really say about it right now.

Consider skipping the last 150 pages or so. The story kind of ends, and then it has this huge addendum where Tolstoy propounds his philosophy to much tedium.

Read a bunch of stuff recently, won't go in detail, but list and rankings are as follows:

-The Simpsons Family History (4/5)

-Terminator: Sector War (2/5)

-The Terminator: 1984 (3/5)

-The Terminator: 2029 (3/5)

-Terminator: Death Valley (3/5)

CM156:
I'm currently working my way through Anna Karenina.

It is a very dry book and I can't remember half the character names.

If you can remember half the names from Anna Karenia, that's more than the percentage of names I can remember from War & Peace.

And before anyone says anything, I can admit that this is probably more down to me than the book.

CM156:
I'm currently working my way through Anna Karenina.

It is a very dry book and I can't remember half the character names. But it's a good Russian novel. That's all I can really say about it right now.

I'm trying to reread Theory of Moral Sentiment before I go back to Wealth of Nations. It has a section at the start that lists all the possible sentiments to a variety of actions that you could have. It's taken a year... And I know your pain.

I haven't read Anna Karenina but if I know Tolstoy, its somehow interesting but completely boring at the same time

Edit: I actually find Dickens the same way but his books aren't quite as dense

Finished my re-read of 100 Years of Solitude. Possibly better on the second go around, watching the eternal cycles of the family members and how the town rises and falls over time. I'm really curious how the Netflix series presumably going to happen is going to pull this off.

Just got around to reading the Sandman Graphic Novels by Neil Gaiman. Read the first one and am now Reading A Dolls House. So far I'm intrigued and I'm curious to see where this goes. I'm particularly curious to see what changes not having Sandman in the world for 70 years had on the world, aside from making things weird(and the Sleepy Sickness). I am curious how Gaiman got away with having all of the references to famous copyrighted characters so far, though I imagine some kind of deal was struck with DC at very least, oh wait...published by DC. That explains a lot.

On Violence (4/5)

This is another installment on the "on X" series - On Hatred was one such example. Still, unlike the past versions, this gets a 4 rather than a 3, though I can't really say why. I mean, it was talking about stuff I already knew about and/or stuff I agreed with, least for the most part. Could be because when discussing domestic violence, it's easier to give hard figures than rely on more abstract descriptions of racism (which has become an increasingly abstract concept in recent times). Well, whatever the case, this is mostly a case of preaching to the choir as far as I was concerned, but still, decent.

Dragon Ball Z: Volume 5 (4/5)

Well, this was something I borrowed at random from the library - I'm good with quick reads on the 2hr trip home, least when reading something bulkier (which I am right now). Still, this was good. Like, better than any of the Dragon Ball volumes I read, and I don't think it's because I'm more familiar with the anime that was adapted from said manga.

I don't know if this is the case with DBZ's manga as a whole, but it felt more mature than its predecessor, or at least as mature as you can get with the concept. Like, for one thing, remember how in Dragon Ball I complained about the amount of sex-based jokes? Gone. Remember when I complained about the lack of stakes because Goku was practically invincible? Gone. Like, I assume that problem would rear its head up later down the line, but at least at this point in time, we're in a bit of a sweet spot, where Gohan and Krillin are strong, but not so strong that they can act willy nilly. So, when they have to walk rather than fly, when they see Frieza's men murdering namekians, then...yeah. Darker, rather than grittier. Not the first time I read a DBZ manga, but unlike the other time I did so, I didn't switch over to the TFS script in my head.

Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City - KJ Parker

KJ Parker is the nom de plume of fantasy humourist Tom Holt when he wants to write grittier, more fantasy-orientated work, often without happy endings. KJ Parker's work is probably a little unusual for a lot of fantasy readers expecting heroes and magic words and stuff. In fact, I got the impression KJ Parker was dropped by their publisher as his works disappeared for a while, but after self-publishing new work on the internet (The "Two of Swords" series) seems to have generated enough interest to be picked up again.

This, like so many of the KJ Parker works, is a deeply cynical view of the world leavened by plenty of humour. The basic idea is that a colonel of engineers, Orhan, finds himself unexpectedly in military command of the Robur Empire's capital when it is under assault from a military genius. Orhan, with just a regiment of engineers and a few hundred city watch, has to somehow spin lead into gold and make the city defensible despite the sclerosis of its political classes, bureaucracy and peacetime attitudes. There's often something quite cold and reserved about a lot of KJ Parker's protagonists. They are often thinkers, methodical, perhaps in ways troubled and little given to friendship and intimacy, and Orhan is no exception. But there's plenty to enjoy in the wheezes he and his associates dream up in their efforts to save the city. Ultimately, however, this really is not KJ Parker's best work. The Two Of Swords is superior, as is some of his earlier work, so if you're intrigued, maybe check them out first. All or nearly all of his works appear to be in an approximate, same world - the same empires or kingdom names keep coming up - although mostly vague, perhaps separated by centuries - to make them all effectively standalone works.

Total Recall - Arnold Schwarzenegger

This is Arnold's autobiography, and the fact that I finally finished after dipping in and out of it across three different calendar years perhaps sums up how engaging I feel this book is, despite being (naturally) co-authored to ease Arnold's clunky English for the benefit of the reader.

The focus of the book is broadly split between the three main phases of Schwarzenegger's life - his bodybuilding era, followed by his movie career and then term as Governor of California. Perhaps unreasonably, I felt that each section was long enough to bore somebody who had no real interest in the subject matter while simultaneously being too shallow to satisfy muscleheads, film buffs, or political pundits respectively. Comparing the chapters dealing with coming to the USA to compete in bodybuilding, for example, with the documentary Pumping Iron, demonstrates just how economical Arnold is with the background, the flavour, and also with the facts. Arnold has been the subject of countless controversies over the years, but in this airbrushed account he only admits to events that have already been made public knowledge, and even then you have to read between the lines. It almost feels there is a whole companion book worth of omitted material sitting in the editor's waste paper basket.

A solid 3/5, and that's coming from somebody who is fairly partisan.

Merchant Soldier Sage: A History of the World in Three Castes by David Priestland [2013]
A very interesting look at world history that doesn't use the concepts of Marx in competing economic classes, but instead through the lens of competing philosophical underpinnings exemplified by the concepts of caste, centered around the merchant, soldier and sage caste concepts especially.

I don't know if Priestland's analysis would hold up under the weight of full historiography scrutiny, but he certainly makes a decent case for his structure in this work. Written just after the major fallout of the 2007-08 financial crisis, Priestland talks about the ever-changing balance between the basic caste philosophical viewpoints and how different periods of history were affected by those ideas. In essence, Priestland argues that whenever any particular caste philosophy becomes overly dominant in social thought, then we see the instability play out quite dramatically.

I highly recommend the work. While I can see some folks having problems with the underpinning philosophy Priestland uses, it is still a thought-provoking piece that forces the reader into considering matters from a different point of view. Always a good thing.

The Labyrinth Index - Charles Stross

Another installment in Stross's long-running series about "The Laundry" - a division of the British secret services that deals with Occult threats. In terms of his series, Stross seems to me write an awful lot of rent-paying dross; this Cthulhu mythos / tech geek / spy series is probably his best series.

The basic idea is that computing power (both human thought and computers) are advancing humanity towards a sort of occult singularity as Lovecraftian aliens are attracted and will eventually cause a catastrophic magical apocalypse. At this point in the series [redacted for spoilers- let's just say stuff has happened], the USA appears to be in the middle of a takeover from a malign extradimensional entity and the president is missing. One the Laundry's senior agents, a PHANG (i.e. vampire) is tasked with taking a team over the Atlantic to help restore authority and prevent the USA falling to domination. Stuff happens. It's readable enough - poking fun at bureaucracy, techy fun with apps and computers for geeks, the action's good enough and you can scoot through it in a breeze. However, I cannot help but feel this far in the series, the charm has declined substantially and sclerosis is setting in, so it's a sort of Laundry novel going through the motions.

I Still Dream - James Smythe

James Smythe is, I think, one of the better SF writers to have emerged from the last few years. He writes usually quite near-future material, and his books are quite interested I think in psychology and our perception of the world. Some are quite tonally different - his previous works have been borderline SF horror, where "I Still Dream" is certainly not.

At base, it's the story of one Laura Bow, who is instrumental in creating the world's first AIs. The story starts in 1997, and revisits at 10-year intervals to the mid-21st century; we thus see snapshots of Laura's life with the development of her personal AI project, Organon, and a rival part "stolen" from her by Bow Corporation (which her father was instrumental in founding). So that qualifies as SF. But really it's about Laura and the people around her; ruminations on love and loss (death of relationships, friends and family is a recurrent theme), and the nature of development - that bringing up an AI from rudimentary to developed sentience is partly a job of psychology, not just coding. It's an emotionally moving book rich on character, both sad and hopeful.

Pigeons From Hell by Robert E. Howard

Decided to go back and reread this selection of short stories from Howard that I picked up years ago. It was a fun read, but one of the things I had actually forgotten about was Howard's . . . . interesting views on race. The first short story simply presented the "average-for-the-1930s" level of racism I was expecting from the author. The second story, however, jumped straight into full-on white supremacist racism of the worst sort. Sad, but unfortunately not unexpected. At least I can take comfort in the knowledge that Howard and his circle of literary friends (including Lovecraft) came up with some very interesting ideas that less racist (and in some cases, simply better) writers have expanded on over the years.

Brown's Requiem by James Ellroy (1981)

Apparently I was stuck on Brown's Requiem for exactly 5 months. To call the read "breezy" might sound disingenuous, but it is true: Ellroy writes with ease, keeping the prose snappy and the dialogue florid. But for some slumps in the narrative this should be a quick, fun read.

I guess the story never involved me much. For the most part it's your usual noir fare, which should be good enough, but Ellroy introduces weirdo elements that seem there purely out of personal taste and clash horribly with the disgraced PI/femme fatale/serial arsonist/bent cops routine. Loopers ('70s street for "caddies") feature prominently as lowlifes and hired goons, for some baffling reason that would better suit a parody. Through his mouthpiece Fritz Brown, Ellroy delivers lengthy speeches championing their awesome ethos as if caddying is a form of elevated counterculture. Brown is also a classical music nut (tying with his, as well as Ellroy's, obsession with his own Germanic heritage), a plot point that keeps finding its way back into the narrative awkwardly.

I just didn't care for Brown very much. He's always a little too in control, things always go a little too easy for him. There's no underdog charm to him. His penchant for lecturing people he's just met as soon as he has figured them out is tiresome, moreso when he takes a congratulatory tone. He's quick on judgement and paternalism and that strikes me as a very insecure or unsure Ellroy voicing his general opinions through a paper-thin surrogate.

Brown's Requiem isn't half-bad for a debut novel, but what I enjoyed the most was everything that reminded me of Ellroy's would-be hit The Black Dahlia, including the conspiratorial framework, one hellish trip to TJ (the high point of the book) and a suitably melancholy ending. At one point Brown even jokes about cracking the Black Dahlia case. Next time for sure, James.

The Deathless - Peter Newman

I really enjoyed Peter Newman's previous trilogy (The Vagrant, The Malice, The Seven) so had no qualms about picking up his new book. In a sense - humanity threatened by encroaching demonic forces - the basic idea is similar. However, where the previous trilogy involved a rent in the fabric of the world in which demons pured through, here demons are intermingled with nature; the wild is seriously dangerous. Small townships grow food, transport is across huge raised roads, and an elite live in floating castles that defend the townships when they are threatened.

These elites have noble blood lineages where one is chosen as host to a soul that is perpetually reborn (The Deathless), and leads the fight against the Wild. There are seven realms/families, each of which has an associated crystal, each with 3-7 deathless, the numbers being limited by how many receptacles they have to hold the souls. However, in the Sapphire realm, trouble is afoot. The High Lord is unstable, has riven his family by revoking his sister's immortality, and the realm is on the verge of collapsing into murder and civil war.

So, nice enough set-up, but I couldn't help it feel was a little ho-hum unoriginal fantasy thereafter. There were some intriguing hints of where the series might go - that there's a huge amount the characters (and thus the reader) don't know about the state of the world, but the characters aren't particularly engaging, the plot is pretty average. They're not bad either, mind. The writing's pretty good, and it's easy to read. The end is not much of an end, more a pause - it feels like the book could almost be an extended intro/prologue, with the second book is going to revisit about 5-10 years down the line and get the real meat of the story started.

Anyway, yeah, fine to spend some time on, but not by itself compelling.

davidmc1158:
Pigeons From Hell by Robert E. Howard

Decided to go back and reread this selection of short stories from Howard that I picked up years ago. It was a fun read, but one of the things I had actually forgotten about was Howard's . . . . interesting views on race. The first short story simply presented the "average-for-the-1930s" level of racism I was expecting from the author. The second story, however, jumped straight into full-on white supremacist racism of the worst sort. Sad, but unfortunately not unexpected. At least I can take comfort in the knowledge that Howard and his circle of literary friends (including Lovecraft) came up with some very interesting ideas that less racist (and in some cases, simply better) writers have expanded on over the years.

I do find it hard to read some of the other shorts that Howard wrote, definitely, with the racism quite pronounced. I like a lot of his writing, but ...yeesh.

Pigeons from Hell has a cool monster, a neat twist on a currently played-out threat (without getting into spoilers).

For You by Ian McEwan (2008)

For You is a "libretto for Michael Berkeley's opera", whatever that means. I can't quite visualize the staging. I read it as a quickie two-act play, or even a TV script, since it's so melodramatic. It reads like a boiled-down pitch for a lengthier, better Ian McEwan novel: a composer and womaniser rediscovers his musical calling when he falls for the horn (hehe) in his orchestra. Meanwhile his sickly wife may or may not have the hots for her doctor, and his housekeeper nurses an obsession the maestro doesn't know he's fanning. You recognize the McEwan archetypes in them; the manic housekeeper in particular rings close to Enduring Love's creep.

I enjoyed the writing and the dry-wit exchanges at face value; there's some marvel in how deftly and effortlessly McEwan conjures such intricate web of self-defeating wont. But between the awkwardness of the presentation and the pervasive feeling that this is a mere sketch, I wouldn't rank it very highly in the author's oeuvre.

Overwatch: What You Left Behind (3/5)

So, another Overwatch short story, and round about the same level of quality as the last one. As in, it's fine...not good, not bad, just fine.

Actually it could be said to be slightly worse than the last one, in that the formatting feels off at times. Like, when the characters are thinking, usually there's italics to designate that, but here, there's no visual distinction. It's arguably minor, but it's certainly noticable. But that aside, it's okay. Fairly dark at times, but no darker than what the setting of Overwatch actually provides for (which, despite its aesthetic, is actually plenty dark). Baptiste isn't exactly my favourite character, but as someone who's written for him in regards to both his Talon days and his relationship with Sombra, it was nice to see the story touch on both.

Also, minor point - anyone see the title and think of Deep Space 9? Also, anyone see his armour and be reminded of the Bengal medic armour in StarCraft? Anyone?

Ah, okay then.

The Ember Blade - Chris Wooding

Wooding spends his time in fantasy and YA. I don't read YA, but his fantasy work to date has been pretty good - something of a cut above.

Which makes The Ember Blade so disappointing. This is the most by numbers of fantasy by numbers you can imagine. Young hero bildungsroman, magic sword, resistance to evil empire, underlying threat to the whole world... nothing the average fantasy reader hasn't read a million times before. Wooding's still a better than average writer even toiling away at a bog standard doorstop and if you enjoy fantasy literature, why not? But there are always going to be so many limitations with a huge lump of cliches - such works haven't been able to set my pulse racing in decades.

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis (1985)

I'm going to mull over this one some more.

The Doomsday Game - Gary Gibson

Third in a series about the "Pathfinders" - a bunch of survival experts rescued from alterative dimensions who explore other alternative dimensions for "The Authority" - a department of the US government. Essentially, the trick with these infinite alternative dimensions is that humanity has found infinite exciting ways to detroy itself - plague, nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, errant physics experiments - and the main dimension of out heroes is heading that way itself, so it's looking for a replacement dimension to transfer to.

Bluntly, this book isn't that rivetting. It finishes off the stories of the protagonists from its previous; the first book was fairly interesting, and it's been diminishing returns since then. It's competent enough to pass the time (although its also short), but it's all a bit meh, retreading the same stuff, inferior to its predecessors and nothing I'd go out of my way for. The most interesting thing was the whizzo way he thought up of a parallel humanity finding a way to extinguish itself, but one good idea does not a good book make.

What I've read recently:

Straight Outta Fangton by C.T. Phipps
An urban fantasy set in Detroit about a fairly new vampire who stumbles into a dangerous plot. It's an interesting take on the vampire mythos, with lots of pop culture references sprinkled within.
(5/5)

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Basically Scooby-Doo meets HP Lovecraft, with all the horror that entails. The writing is very descriptive with a lot of interesting metaphors, entertaining characters, and plenty of twists and turns. There are a lot of sudden shifts into script for... some reason, which readers may find a but jarring. But otherwise it's a good, creepy read.
(4/5)

Simpsons Comics Royale (3/5)

So, this is a collection of random Simpsons stories. I say random, because there's not really any one theme or idea that connects them. Just various comic issues. You can take them or leave them. Ergo, 3/5

One Piece: Volume 2 (3/5)

Vol. 2 is better than Vol. 1, but don't get exicted - there's simply less bad stuff rather than there being more good stuff. And what stuff there is is basically a giant fight scene where the characters TALK IN CAPITALS A LOT OF THE TIME! HAVE I MADE THAT CLEAR?

Bleh. Doesn't help that Luffy's easily the least interesting protagonist so far, but it's not as if Zolo or Nami are much better. But hey, clowns, cannons, idiots, swords...yay...

The Amulet: The Stonekeeper (3/5)

Well, this was disappointing.

There's nothing overly bad about 'The Amulet' so far, but it is reminding me of stuff I'm either indifferent to (Spiderwick Chronicles) or stuff like the Medoran Chronicles (kill it with fire!) Also doesn't help that at least the first book is skewing younger than I was led to believe. I mean, okay, this was a YA series, but it's a bit more "Y" than "A" right now, so to speak. I was led to believe that the series was quite good, but so far, it's just average. It's a packaging of familiar tropes that doesn't really do anything to distinguish itself from other series that have used those tropes. Parallel world? Check. Kid being "the special"? Check. Dead father, kidnapped mother? Check. Kid rising to position of responsibility? Check. Temptation of power? Check. Crazy elf? Um...okay, check, because that's been around since Warhammer at least.

So, is 'The Stonekeeper' bad? No, not really. But there's nothing overly special about it either. Certainly not worth the $20 I spent on it.

One Piece: Volume 3 (3/5)

This is the best volume so far. Like vol. 2, its increase in quality is partly due to there simply being less annoying stuff to irritate me. Still, the volume does have some improvement, in part because it's not just action, and does allow some character development...sort of...maybe...arguably...

Honestly, I'll take what I can get at this point.

The Tropic of Eternity - Tom Toner

Third in the ongoing series of the Amaranthine Spectrum series (earlier books "The Promise of the Child" & "The Weight of the World"). It's past 14,000 AD; Homo sapiens is gone. In it's place are a race of immortals, the Amaranthine (sterile humans that underwent an immortality treatment), and a welter of other posthuman species, most of which are chaotic, primate-like breeds collectively called The Prism. The Amaranthine, few in number and utterly stagnant, rule a gradually collapsing empire (The Firmament), playing off the technologically inferior but vibrant Prism against each other to keep a grip on their wealth and territory.

Obviously not wanting to give too much away on spoilers, this is the continuing adventures of the cast from the first two books: chiefly Lycaste (a posthuman giant), plus various Amaranthine, Prism and others as they navigate the decay of the Amaranthine empire, triggered to crisis by the mysterious antagonist, Aaron the long-lived. What this book does is very dramatically expand the scale of the universe. For the first two books, we are mostly just exploring the machinations of Aaron and struggles of the Amaranthine Firmament. Here, we discover just how small and relatively trivial they are - the scope of the intergalactic stage they are operating in is staggeringly vast.

I love this series. It's beautifully written for a start, as Toner has a lovely way with words. Furthermore, it's a superb stylistic mix of the sort of melancholy, odd/grotesque and often dark humour from two of my favourite authors, Jack Vance and Mervyn Peake, so it's well up my street. In fact, much about it has a feel of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. The characters are well constructed there are few, if any, real villains - the characters are well-rounded, have complex motivations, flaws and virtues, and there's no simplistic concept of good and evil. The Amaranthine Spectrum is most certainly science fantasy; most of the technology and power is often baroque and maybe even arbitrary enough to be magic.

I cannot recommend this series enough really, it's one of the best things I've read in years and I love it. Although I appreciate taste is subjective, and it might not be yours.

Priest of Bones - Peter McLean

For anyone who has watched the BBC interwar crime drama "Peaky Blinders", this looks dangerously close to a fantasy book rip-off. Thomas Piety, from a notorious crime dynasty in a major industrial city, returns from a thoroughly PTSD-inducing war with his unstable brother to rebuild his criminal empire (left in the hands of his aunt whilst he was away) and gets caught up with government agents who want him to do their business, one of which gets a job as his barmaid. I mean, this is totally Peaky Blinders. Chuck in a bit of magic, life in the slums and gang warfare(fantasy equivalent 1500-1600s I reckon - gunpowder, but swords and crossbows seem to be doing the personal damage), overarching Big Threat, let it roll.

But is any good? Well, it's not bad, but it's not like there's a whole lot to really recommend it above a whole load of other books you could be reading, either. It's not original, not particularly exciting, the characters aren't particularly compelling, not particularly well written. However, it flows happily and credibly enough, it's easy to read, and if you've got a hole in your reading time to fill for a few hours, why not?

Thin Air - Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan's output seems to have been fairly scarce recently - although perhaps we can expect this as I'm sure he's made a lot of money by now and doesn't have quite the same drive to pay the rent. Anyway, Thin Air is typical Richard Morgan fare. Super-tough guy with plenty of fuck you bad attitude; corrupt capitalist society; noir-ish detective plot. Our hero, Hakan Veil, could as easily be the protagonist from Altered Carbon or Black Man (publication title Thirteen in North America): basically a violent arsehole who circumstances have left in the dumps, although with a moral core in there to let you sympathise.

The set-up here is some way into the colonisation of Mars. Terraforming is quite some way off, but there's now a very extensive habitable zone (under a dome) with a main conurbation, outlying towns and (for lack of a better word) countryside. The Chinese have their own habitation zone on the other side of the planet. By analogy, it's a little like the later phase of the US West, perhaps around 1900 - still very rough around the edges, but increasingly under more controlled governance and law. Mars is hot in certain forms of tech, the money is flowing in; but much of the population lives in (hi-tech) drudgery. Mars has a government with very substantial funding and control from capitalist investors, plus the Earth-based government(s) watching over in the background. Morgan is a bit of a leftie, albeit seemingly one resigned to the left's inability to effectively challenge the dominant paradigm, but it doesn't intrude much on the book.

Veil is a gene and AI-enhanced soldier busted out of private military and forced to do grubby street work for money. He gets caught up in an Earth-instgated oversight investigation into the Martian government, and after that it's all about unravelling the mystery with plenty of tech, guns, brutal combat and lashings of enthusiastic, graphic sex. Like just about all Morgan's other SF leads. Like most of Morgan's output, it's fast paced, full of attitude, and a perfectly good read. One might wonder if Morgan could try something a bit different (I mean different from his fantasy trilogy, which essentially is the same sorts of characters and plots except with dragons). It's a bit tired, but I guess it works for him, and currently still for me.

A Fighting Man of Mars, part of the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Read a few of Burroughs books, and they tend to be very formulaic, especially the female characters, who are there to look good, get imprisoned and require rescuing by the hero who they get angry with before falling in love with. "The incomparable Dejah Thoris", for example has mutated into an action heroine in other people's interpretations, but originally she didn't do anything much except get kidnapped. The books still tend to be decent and have some good stuff in there, just you have to put up with some not great bits.

A Fighting Man of Mars introduces a female characters who's actually useful, and can hold their own compared to the hero. Sure, she gets imprisoned a few times, but then again so does everyone on Barsoom, Burroughs likes daring escapes and rescues.

Otherwise, the book was quite samey compared to earlier stuff, and there's a few cases where the hero wins just cause he happens to be really strong, or it's offhandedly mentioned that he's the best knife-thrower around (which is relevant exactly once). But there's good bits, interesting ideas and fights with giant lizards or spiders or cannibals.

Legends of Shannara: Bearers of the Black Staff (3/5)

One day, I'll read a Shannara novel that is "good" rather than "average" or in the case of First King, outright bad. Alas, this isn't the day.

So, rest assured, the usual tropes are here. Army invading an area? Check. Humans and elves working together against said army? Check. Elf falling for human? Check. Fairly simplistic writing? Check. Setting and tropes that are derivative of Tolkien, and feel even more dated in a post-Game of Thrones world? Check. I know I'm being harsh, but Shannara, least in my experience, really hasn't aged well. It's not the only fantasy series that uses LotR as inspiration, but unlike, say, Wheel of Time, it doesn't add nearly enough of its own material to make up for the deficit of originality.

So, that said, what does this book do to distinguish itself from other Shannara books? Well, it's the earliest book I've read in the timeline (well, read to completion at least), so this is before the Four Lands, where much of the world outside the given area is still a hellhole. So, there's some nice word-painting there. Oh, and a character uses an ATV that's somehow still functioning after 500 years, so, yay for that. And, um...yeah, I've really got nothing. Even if the story is set at least 500 years before Sword of Shannara (I'm not too up to date on the timeline), it's using the plot points from said work liberally, even if its setting is different. I've felt for a long time that the Shannara setting is literally too small, that because it takes place over such a narrow geographic area, there's only so many stories you can tell.

Is there even any point in me reading Shannara books at this point in time, when they've so far proven themselves to be bog standard fantasy? Looking at Brooks's bibliography, maybe the answer is no - he certainly seems to have gone for quanity over quality, and when his best book I've read is the second one ever written (Elfstones), then...yeah. Well, in the meantime, that's this book. Generic fantasy that uses generic plot, existing in a genre that's long stopped trying to imitate Tolkien.

Hawki:
One day, I'll read a Shannara novel that is "good" rather than "average" or in the case of First King, outright bad. Alas, this isn't the day.

I'm not sure you could manage that after Elfstones, and I fear that might not have survived the test of time as I read it 30 years ago.

Sonic the Hedgehog: Volume 2: The Fate of Dr. Eggman (3/5)

Sonic Boom: Volume 1 (3/5)

Sonic Boom: Volume 2 (3/5)

I read these three graphic novels in one go, so I'm reviewing them together...sort of. The two Boom graphic novels go hand in hand, so I'll get to them first.

They're...okay. Much of the humour relies on breaking the fourth wall to the extent that Deadpool would blush. The type of fourth wall breaking that has the characters, among other things, grabbing onto their own speech bubbles to save themselves. If you like Sonic Boom (the cartoon series), you'd like this, probably. If not, it won't convert you. As someone who does like Sonic Boom, I did like this, but I'd say the humour landed about 70% of the time. That left 30% of the humour not landing, including Eggman utilizing the same robot over and over, Knuckles being way too stupid for his own good, even for the standards of the cartoon it's based on, and...yeah. Light fun. Bitterly pokes at the wound that there's a gap for the Worlds Collide/Unite arc that due to the copyright BS with Archie Comics, Ken Penders, and Sega, is practically impossible to get a hold of now without spending a small fortune.

Anyway, let's move onto 'Fate of Doctor Eggman,' which is in the IDW continuity. You might recall that I reviewed Volume 1 awhile back with very tepid thoughts. The dialogue was simple, the story was simple, and while issues 1-4 did form back-to-back continuity, the entire thing felt like an exercise to introduce the characters, even though everyone should be familiar with them by now (and even if they aren't, the series is continuing from where Forces left off, so if you're not already into Sonic, you're going to have a hard time here). Still, issues 5-8 improve in that the dialogue is better (slightly more serious, more use of dry humour), and mostly better plotting. Key word on "mostly" however, because there's a bit of a disconnect between issues 6 and 7, like we missed out some stuff in-between. Like, for instance, "Eggman" is revealed at the end of issue 6, even though we know it can't be him, and he's revealed to be Metal Sonic close to the start of issue 7. Like, usually reveals are left to the ends of issues, not just a few pages in. Similarly with Whisper - she's presented as a mysterious force in issue 8, and has her identity revealed in the scope of the same issue. Considering that we had 6 whole issues of teasing Metal Sonic up to this point, that Whisper's reveal is so anti-climactic feels off. Still, it's an improvement over the previous volume.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

Before I can talk about The Player of Games, I have to talk about The Culture. The Culture was Banks's big idea, a fully automated luxury space anarchist society that underpinned nine of his thirteen science fiction novels. The Culture's organic members are all genetically enhanced to be able to live for about four centuries and can voluntarily secrete a large variety of drugs from glands in their bodies, among other improvements. Sentient AI are also Culture citizens, and range from drones, which are small hovering robots at least as intelligent as a human, to minds, which inhabit infrastructure like ships or space stations, and are many, many, many times more intelligent than a human. Minds are responsible for the vast majority of work done in The Culture, which they can achieve either through direct control of the hardware they are wired into, or with non-sentient drone workers. The Culture do not live on planets, instead living on densely inhabited, city-like spaceships, or less densely inhabited giant ring-shaped space stations called Orbitals. Culture citizens are free to spend their lives engaging in whatever activities they choose, with artistic and recreational pursuits being the most common, sexual promiscuity is a social norm, and citizens can have their sex or physical form altered to whatever they want essentially whenever they want, with most changing sex multiple times over their life. All dealings with other civilisations are done through the organisation Contact, from diplomacy to warfare, with the subdivision Special Circumstances taking care of espionage and meddling in the affairs of other planets. There's definitely no Prime Directive here. Most Culture novels centre on the work of Contact or Special Circumstances. The Culture is a utopia, but there's lots of scary shit outside it.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is one of the finest organic tabletop game players in The Culture, a position which has left him rather bored as there's no game he cannot win. However, he's soon tricked and blackmailed into taking Special Circumstances up on an offer to visit the Empire of Azad, a civilisation which controls several planets but is significantly less advanced than The Culture, to play their game. The social status of everyone in the authoritarian and militaristic Azad is determined by their ability to play the fiendishly complex game, which is so intrinsic to the empire's identity that it is also called Azad. The winner of the final game becomes emperor, although Gurgeh is told not to expect to get that far...

The Player of Games is a great work of science fiction. Banks brings both the Culture and Azad to life in a way that makes them both feel real in spite of their alien natures. The narration is third person, but tied very closely to Gurgeh's perspective, which Banks uses to allow the reader to view it's negative aspects in the same abstract way Gurgeh does, which really amps up the shock value of the tour of the depths of it's depravity taken at the end of the second act. Like most of the Culture novels, it raises questions about the morality of the way Special Circumstances operates, which rarely fails to benefit both the Culture and the societies it interacts with, but also make Section 31 from Star Trek look like goody two shoes. The Player of Games is also a good introduction to the Culture universe, since it concerns a relatively small scale story told from the perspective of a Culture citizen, and spends a fair amount of time showing what life in the Culture is like before the plot really kicks in.

What Matters Most - James Hollis

This is a psychology book about finding meaning in your life (I am, I think, going through a bit of a mid-life crisis). It's full of beautiful ideas, thought-proking commentary, brief but instructive case studies from the author's practice, to help you look at your life in different ways and explain why you may not be finding satisfaction. And it's proper psychology, not crass mind/body/spirit mumbo-jumbo. On the other hand, it doesn't actually provide you with answers. I kind of knew this - psychology is about helping you find answers rather than just giving the answers to you, because only you can truly find your own answers through self-examination. And it is sparking ideas for me how to think about my life differently and what to do with various things going on in it - there can be no higher recommendation, I suppose. It is good to be reminded that often what holds us back most is ourselves, that we can have unnecessary fears and anxieties and repeated behaviours that prevent our progress; that we can set ourselves objectives which for which the rewards are, deep down illusory and will never truly sate us.

Fine, more graphic novels. Because right now I'm into junkfood rather than proper meals.

Sonic the Hedgehog: Volume 3: The Battle for Angel Island (3/5)

Of the IDW series, vol. 3 is better than volume 1, but it's no volume 2. What we get is basically three issues worth of fight scenes, plus one issue that exists solely to prop up the next arc.

But, okay, sure. Fight scenes, I can live with. I'll take Sonic fight scenes than...other fight scenes, that I'll get to later. But the problem is that the fight scene in question is cribbling heavily from Sonic Heroes, and makes no effort to hide the fact. So, basically, if we think of Dreamcast-era Sonic, we get the least compelling final battle (narratively-speaking) used as the basis for a near rehash of said battle. Only without the rock music. And blackjack. And hookers. And...well, least Amy's far better in this version than the Segaverse, but even in that realm, Boomverse!Amy beat her to the whole "character improvement so you're no longer insufferable" thing. On the flipside, y'know when people complain about there being too many Sonic characters? This kind of exemplifies that, because when you've got this many characters involved in 3 issues of near-constant action, there's only so much available time to flesh out their personalities. Some fare better (e.g. Tangle), others don't (e.g. Whisper).

Then there's the setup. Dr. Starline. Some guy who idolizes Eggman, who restores his memories (if you're asking for even a hint of the ethics involves in erasing Eggman's false personality here, you're not going to get them), and is basically "why yes, I will start working for you, and give you the Chaos Emeralds, and we'll be BFFs." Oh, and Sonic lets Metal Sonic go, and it's because of that that Eggman's memories are restored at all. I...like...what?

So, the arc is okay. But still not good. Volume 2 was close to being "good," but even that didn't manage it. And yet, people love the IDW series from what I can tell, while throwing shade on the Archie series. And all I can say is that whatever its flaws, the Archie series was far more compelling than anything IDW has produced thus far.

Halo: Collateral Damage (2/5)

Remember what I said about fight scenes up above? This is one of them.

The artwork is bad. Canon-compliacne is wonky, because the Spartans are using tech that feels way too advanced for the time period they're in. The plot is basically every Halo trope thrown together (Covies attack, Covies after something, stop Covies, something about sacrifice, blah blah blah) into a three issue series that thinks it's more insightful than it is. Like "collateral damage" is the theme, as in, collateral damage will be incurred as the cost of war and oh God, gag me. Comic, you're not deep for referencing potentially deep themes. Either engage with them or don't.

So, what we have is three issues of fighting, and fighting, and fighting (bored), and speeches (bored), and fighting, and fighting, and BORED! Dear god, there's entire pages where we've got nothing but non-stop action and it's just...so...boring. It doesn't help that the Covenant is portrayed as an unthinking horde that attacks through weight of numbers, which...isn't what the Covenant is. Even in the games, the Covies at least understand the value of cover FFS. But no. We get our fights, we get our speeches, and BORED!

Next...

Halo: Lone Wolf (3/5)

Lone Wolf shares some of the sins of Collateral Damage, but it's not nearly as egergious with them. The art style isn't ugly for one thing. And while the characters aren't really compelling, Linda's at least...somewhat engaging, but that's mainly because she's an established character. Why she goes alone is something the comic never even properly explains, but yay, survivours, Covenant, AI, mcGuffin, etc. It's Halo tropes recycled again, but not so egregiously as Collateral Damage. I really don't know why at this point why the Halo EU is so set on telling stories in the past rather than the present - certainly I've focused on that with the Halo stuff I've written, what with Cortana and the Created - but when I consider the divisive reaction to Halo 5, and that Infinite apparently wants to move away from it, then it does make sense. Granted, that does indicate that the Halo fanbase wants the same stuff recycled over and over and...oh God, I've become an old man. But still, there was no reason for Halo to continue after Reach, and the one interesting thing it did with H5 has been left out in the rain, so if the EU won't touch that, all it's got is old ground to go over.

On the other hand, we do get to see kid!Linda. And kid!Linda is cute!Linda. So, there's that I guess. But I have to admit that if not for a pre-existing character being a protagonsit, Lone Wolf would be even further down in my estimation.

Oh, and Outpost Discovery exists in-universe, and it's totally propaganda. Like, seriously, am I the only one who notices that every time there's a "Museum of Humanity" or something similar in the Halo universe it's basically the UNSC promoting itself? Anyone?

The Plague Stones - James Brogden

I quite like James Brogden because he writes stories based around Birmingham (UK) and area, which is part of the country I'm very familiar with. This is the third book of a type that are based around (sometimes local) folklore and myth, following Hekla's Children and The Hollow Tree. These three books are basically horror novels, although not particularly scary. The themes are very much of recurrent or persistent, ancient evil. He wrote some other more fantasy-orientated books previously, although still mostly set in the "real" world.

Toby, a young teen to some less-than-affluent parents, is attacked in his house when his parents are out. This spurs his parents to accept an agreement to take over a distant relative's tenancy of an old house run by a housing association, with a very accomodating, even suspiciously so, board of trustees. Of course, it all turns out to be much less attractive than getting a free house. The trustees are actually a very old society holding back a centuries-old curse from their community, and Toby and his family are the new, unaware recruits...

Brogden is perhaps happiest writing about people rather than horror, and the characters are well constructed. His style is pretty simple and effective, and it reads easily enough - despite being ~400 pages, it flies by pretty swiftly. Of the three, the Plague Stones is I think the weakest (Hekla's Children is notably superior and even quite genuinely unsettling), although even still it's a nice enough book. By no means great literature, but a pleasing enough read.

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