April 29

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Reading Journal : April 2015

April was an interesting month for me, because I came to the end of a long jag of naval fiction, and looked around for something to replace it. I didn’t find a satisfactory series, but thrashing around was, itself, interesting.

(30) Hornblower in the West Indies by CS Forester

This is the last Hornblower novel in terms of narrative chronology. Forester looped back to do prequels after this, which is why his series has a distinctive crack in the middle. Hornblower’s early adventures are written last, then his more mature adventures are the product of an author decades younger. There is a final coda, a story usually collected with the incomplete novel “Hornblower in the Crisis”, but effectively, this is the end.

It is difficult to separate this book from the huge body of work which preceded it. If you wanted to read these novels, this is a poor place to start. Forester does something interesting here, in that he shows his character after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, trying to make a living as a captain in the peace that follows. He takes on the freeing of slaves for head money, which other authors shy away from, when they can instead set a book earlier and have Spanish gold.

As a concluding story, it works well. It manages to have some action scenes, and deals with the problem of an overpowered protagonist better than many other series. Hornblower is not placed in charge of progressively larger fleets: the peace is cleverly used to depower the Navy, and keep him in the centre of the action. So: skilled, clever writing, but not where you should start with Hornblower. The Library Service has copies.

(31) The Princess Bride by William Golding

I listened to the Overdrive version of this, but it was an abridged version. I noticed this toward the end, when some of the interplay between multiple authors I was expecting was absent. I hated this, because it spoils the plot of the book enough that I don’t want to go back and re-read, to find the characters and colour that were cut out.

(32) Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

I prepared book club discussion questions for this novel. Excellent, slightly dated, but one of those books which deserves the often-bestowed by rarely-deserved designation of modern classic.

(33) The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Raven the Skald

An interesting, brief piece, that I reviewed separately.

(34) Avengers Undercover

An odd graphic novel that follows Avengers Arena. Avengers Arena was written in a style similar to Battle Royale or Hunger Games. In this sequel, the characters who survived track down the evil genius who forced them into a deadly game and murder him. They then need to earn their forgivness, and decide to go undercover in a conspiracy of supervillains, hoping to bring it down from inside. The plot doesn’t hold together, and it wraps up too conveniently. There are some great comics out there, so why read this one?

(35) Kevin Keller : Welcome to Riverdale

The people at Archie Comics do brilliant work that doesn’t get much appreciation. Kevin’s their breakout gay character, first published in 2010, but now given occasional collections. I’m way outside the target demographic for this book, but I’m glad it exists. Copies here.

(36) Baltimore Hats by William T Brigham

A history of hat-making, sponsored by a hat maker. Surprisingly interesting, but only recommended for people who enjoy industrial history.

(37) A Lady’s Captivity among Chinese Pirates in the Chinese Seas by Fanny Loviot.

It has so many of the properties of an excellent story: a Victorian lady, pirates, battles and so on, and yet I found the history of hat making in Baltimore that I’d listen to previous to it far more interesting. I never felt that Fanny Loviot was in real danger, despite this being a biography, not fiction. I think, perhaps, this is because Fanny wants to make very sure her reputation survives this experience, and so she marks out territory quite early.

We are told, in very clear terms, very quickly, that Ms Loviot was never treated rudely or mishandled. I you are at the start of a pirate novel, and the character makes very clear to you that she will not suffer any serious harm at any point for the rest of the narrative, then there’s no tension in any scene. You know people will not so much as swear in Loviot’s presence. She does several daring things to no effect. The pirates holding her flee the ship as the British fleet approaches. Loviot does make a signal so that the British do not soften the pirate vessel up with cannon fire before boarding, but there’s no risk in it for her.

So, oddly flat, given the title. I listened to the Librivox recording but the ebook is on the web for free.

(38) Ms Marvel Vol. 1 : No Normal

An excellent origin story for a new Marvel heroine. Kamala Khan is a young Muslim woman living in the United States who gains shapeshifting abilities. She navigates approaching adulthood, her cultural identity, her generational niche, and her developing powers. The writing is engaging, and this is an excellent step-on title for the flood of young women coming into the hobby. The Library Service has copies available.

(39) Hawkeye : LA Woman

Don’t start here: to get the maximum enjoyment out of this series, start with Hawkeye : My Life As a Weapon.

LA Woman follows Kate Bishop, the teenaged, female Hawkeye (there are three Hawkeyes). It’s a detective story, with low power levels but cinematic violence, much like the earlier books in the series. The idfference is that Kate is energetic and enthusiastic, rather than exhausted and resigned, like the older Hawkguys. Well worth reading, if you like street-level superheroes.

(40) Naval Occasions And Some Traits Of The Sailor-Man by Bartimeus

A series of brief stories about the British navy in the period up until the Second World War. It has a boy’s own feel, almost like a recruiter’s spiel. The most interesting story, in which a teenager catches a fever and loses his sight, is the most interesting because it’s biographical. The author, Bartimeus, took his nom de plume from the blind man in the Bible because he lost much of his sight to fever while on active service. He spent the rest of his life as a naval clerk, which may explain why his imagined navy has an adolescent glow. Recommended for people who enjoyed Marryat or similar authors.

Ilistened to the Librivox version, but the eboook is available for free through the same page.

(41-2) Something from the Nightside and Agents of Light and Darkness by Simon R. Green

As the first books by an author who has since gone on to write a lengthy series, I think it’s best to judge these generously. Something from the Nightside is amusing, but it has problems. The cosmology seems bolted together randomly. The narrator breaks out into lengthy blank verse poems about the supporting characters you meet. In the middle of the action, you’ll get an occasional sermon about what’s going on. All of the characters all have an odd verbal tick, where they can’t help saying “Nightside” to the point where it breaks immersion. Not terrible, and with promise, but hard to recommend when there are many other authors working a similar line.

The second book has a stronger, more coherent plot and better character development, so that shows promise for better to come. The twist is so obvious as to be not a twist, and the payoff is simply inaccurate (let me, I hope not spoil it by adding the name “Yehuda” here.). The series, so far, reminds me of the not-terribly-good burgers I sometimes get a craving for from the local greasy spoon. Not excellent, arguably not even very good: but there’s something attractive in there that allows you to ignore the flaws for long enough to finish.

(43) War Letters from a Young Queenslander by Robert Allen

An excellent recording of a historical document, reviewed earlier.