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Books We Are Reading 2019 [merged]

PeterM

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I wasn’t that impressed with Cryoburn. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing special either, though maybe I should give it another shot. The end, though, that stuck with me.
 

Leif

Mountain Ape
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I wasn’t that impressed with Cryoburn. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing special either, though maybe I should give it another shot. The end, though, that stuck with me.
It comes at a point in Miles' career where the reader may reasonably think, about the conspirators who lay a foul plot against him, "Oh, those poor bastards don't know what they're doing." He's basically got all the levels at that point.
 

Altra

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I have reread a number of Candice Hearns Regency Romances, since I remembered them as warm, comfortable and romantic, without the sex scenes so often described in most novels of the genre. I am currently in the mood for simple fluff.

Apparently I misremembered. And I don't know, if it is due to an overdose of "popculture detective" you-tube videos or my own growing sensitivity to such things, but the hero shaking the heroine and kissing her against her will (because secretly she wants him) is no longer acceptable in my reading. Meh. I may have to give up on the genre.

Moving on to "Soon I will be invincible" by Austin Grossmann. That one is actually an interesting take on superhero novels. Sometime fun, sometime sad, but never boring. Not really fluffy though.

I might have to rereread the Goblin Emperor. Or one of the Christmas Short stories in my Regency Romance collection.
 

Polychrome

Internet Pacifist
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Finished Seven Blades in Black. Sykes' is entertaining, vulgar, and entertainingly vulgar. I recommend skipping the back cover blurb though, it has a fairly major spoiler.
 

Ficino

Rascally Rabbit
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A Military History Of The Western World, Vol. III: From The American Civil War To The End Of World War II by J.F.C. Fuller
This third and last volume of his military history presents few commanders for whom Fuller seems to have much regard... There are some interesting insights here, but you will have to wade through some very outdated attitudes and assumptions to find them.
And a lot of 'those who do not agree with my idée fixe are wrong' IIRC. It's been a long time since I've read it.

I was on vacation last week and away from the online world, so I'm behind on recording my reading. I've finished two series I've been working on. I read Scrivener's Moon, the final of the Fever Crumb trilogy by Philip Reeve. It was a decent book, though with a surprisingly high body count for a YA novel (I think; I don't read a lot of YA fiction). I didn't find it that engaging, because the central mystery--where did the Scriven sub-species of humans come from--did not really need much explanation, really. I also felt that the book suddenly altered the personality of one of its secondary characters, Charley Shallow, simply because it needed a villain. He showed up in the first book as well, where he was fairly sympathetic: an abused orphan who was semi-adopted by the last of the 'Skinners,' the anti-Scriven revolutionaries. He's Fever's antagonist in that book, but he's not presented as malicious or evil--he's doing what he thinks is right, and you can see why. In this book, after being unceremoniously ejected from the house by Fever's father (who also had semi-adopted him) he rapidly becomes sociopathic.

One notable thing about the Fever Crumb books is that they don't simply act as prequels to the Mortal Engines series, they reuse elements from them. So at one point Fever is injured when a chain snaps and its end cuts her face. We're told that if she had not been wearing goggles, it would have taken out her eye, and because she is Scriven, with enhanced healing through nanobots, she does not even have a scar later. This is an obvious call-back to Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines. Likewise, Charley Shallow is in some ways quite similar (until he's made into a sociopath) to the character of Fishcake in the Mortal Engines series, down to the abandonment by a sympathetic semi-parent. But Fishcake never becomes so villainous.

I also read Iron Winter, the last of Stephen Baxter's Northland series. In this one, the date moves to the equivalent of c. 1315 C.E., near the beginning of the 'Little Ice Age.' But in the novel's world, it is not a lesser climatic event, but the very rapid (i.e. within a couple of years) return to nearly full glacial conditions. Northland--that is, Doggerland, the land bridge between Britain and the continent--rapidly becomes uninhabitable. Its huge wall still stands--in fact, it is originally heated by steam power, and has a railroad running along its top--but the climate is too severe for its population to endure. Those that don't die head south as refugees; the book follows the fate of some who go to Carthage, which is the major Mediterranean power in this timeline--Hannibal having defeated Rome. The Carthaginians themselves face a major invasion from the east, as the still-extant Hittite empire, which Northland has propped up over the centuries, engages in a mass migration seeking to seize Carthaginian territory.

The novel's other major plotline concerns a Northland scholar named Pyxeas (Greeks settled in Northland with Pythagoras, bringing their science with them) who seems to be a Newton-level genius, though concerned with climate rather than basic physics. He is the first to realize that the Ice Age is returning, and he departs on a long trip across Eurasia to consult with a Mongol scientist in China as to the cause of this. I won't go into it, for fear of spoiling the secret, but let's just say that Northland itself is largely responsible, as it turns out. In a sense, the book could be read as a defense of small-scale global warming as a good thing; I wonder if it caught flack for that when it was published?

The main narrative reason for the Pyxeas' long journey seems to be to allow us to glimpse the effects of the rapid climate change in Asia; there are also some chapters dealing with minor characters that detail the same thing for North and South America. Some reviews praised Baxter for his 'non-parochial' view, but I think the book would have worked better if the canvas had been smaller. We don't really get enough information about the Americas or China to make the events there very informative, and it really feels like more of the same thing we've seen in Europe (some floods, droughts, wildfires, crop failures, civil wars, and population movements). And we don't really get to know the characters outside of Europe well-enough that they have much emotional heft in the story.

Baxter's trilogy was interesting and enjoyable--particularly the first book--and I'm glad that I read them. This one, though, was not convincing as alt-history. Simply put, things are too much the same as in our timeline--Northland's existence and its extensive contact with (and meddling with) the Mediterranean civilizations should have produced more differences. In Baxter's timeline, Northland became a highly-organized, literate society in NW Europe long before the breakthrough into urban living and literacy in the Near East actually occurred.

The key examples of things running too much as they did in our world, I'd say, come in the realm of religion. There is a form of Christianity in Baxter's world; it is the state religion of the Hittites. In this timeline, Jesus was indicted before the Hittite governor of Jerusalem by Judas, but then spared because Judas recanted. Jesus remained in Jerusalem teaching but got involved in an uprising which seems to have happened suspiciously close to the real one of 66-73 C.E., and then was deported to Hittite territory, where he died in peace, in exile. Baxter does a nice job of sketching what this alternate Christianity is like, and the way that it involves syncretism with pre-existing Hittite gods. But it seems to me that, unless you assume that Jesus was somehow predestined to found a new religion, it's extremely unlikely that he would have had precisely the same sort of career in this alternate world as in ours--if, indeed, he had been born at all. Baxter might be on firmer ground imagining that some sort of proselytizing monotheism arose from ancient Hebrew religion, but to be credible (to me, anyway) it should probably have a different founder and quite different characteristics. Likewise, Islam exists in Baxter's world (though it is little explored) and there again it seems to me that Baxter is radically underestimating the role of historical contingency. You could say the same thing about Hannibal defeating the Romans--in Baxter's altered world, it seems unlikely that precisely the same man would have been involved in those wars, if the conflicts even took place. And I could go on--having the Franks rather than some other Germanic tribe in parts of what is today France, etc.

I guess the fundamental problem is that, to seem recognizable and interesting to the reader, Baxter's world and timeline need to have many points of contact and similarity with our timeline. But, given the length of Northland's existence (since c. 8000 B.C.E.) and the depth of its influence, those similarities just aren't very credible. Baxter could have gone with a much more different world in 1315, with no recognizable states, people, or events (at least, in Western Eurasia) but that might have proved too alien to be intriguing.
 

Eric the .5b

It's all so esoteric
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I guess the fundamental problem is that, to seem recognizable and interesting to the reader, Baxter's world and timeline need to have many points of contact and similarity with our timeline. But, given the length of Northland's existence (since c. 8000 B.C.E.) and the depth of its influence, those similarities just aren't very credible. Baxter could have gone with a much more different world in 1315, with no recognizable states, people, or events (at least, in Western Eurasia) but that might have proved too alien to be intriguing.
I'm reminded of the Turtledove novella "Down in the Bottomlands", which had the Mediterranean not re-flooding after the last time it emptied. It naturally had that approach, with no recognizable societies or geopolitics, but that took the story to an almost second-world technothriller place. Maybe doubly so because it the "tour expedition in a national park turns out to be an international crisis" business also required spelling out the international situation and the nations in question.

And alternate history really leans heavily as a genre into historical references, no matter how unrealistic they are. North America can be split between the Aztecs and Romans, but Richard Nixon and Elvis always seem to show up in the latter twentieth century.
 

WorldSaverInc

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The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte- I LOVED this book. It has a lot of the most recent research on Dinosaurs in one easily digestible narrative. In some ways this is reminiscent of 1491 by Charles Mann in the fact that it provides updates and ideas of what life must have been life like through the most recent research. If you love Dinosaurs or just want to know about the latest research. I would pick this single volume up.

The Grown Ups Guide to Dinosaurs - Audible Original that was essentially a 5-6 part podcast. This was less good, but again with 2-3 hr runtime and podcasts instead of an entire book. It was still informative, but less widespread in time. Steve Brusatte was also in this book, and the narrator of the Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs gives the sense of who the author is which is fantastic narrator.

Currently Reading - American Revolutions: a continental history, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor, I am only a couple hours into this one, but I am absolutely going to pick up a lot of his other history books. I love his approach in foregrounding Western settlers and Native populations as well as broadening the scope of the American revolutions from just "American" colonists vs. British and includes the French, Spanish, and the whole context around it. I am really impressed. He is trying to make it a global contextual event and I love these types of books and scholarship.
 
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hammerbolt

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Currently on a US Civil war binge, using Osprey's books of the Essential history series. Started with "The war in the east" volume 1, then will go of to "The war in the west". Then I'll decide if I want to get into volumes 2 and 3...
 

CaptainCrowbar

Charismatic Megafauna
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The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs by Steve Buschetti - I LOVED this book. It has a lot of the most recent research on Dinosaurs in one easily digestible narrative. In some ways this is reminiscent of 1491 by Charles Mann in the fact that it provides updates and ideas of what life must have been life like through the most recent research. If you love Dinosaurs or just want to know about the latest research. I would pick this single volume up.
The author's name is Steve Brusatte. Sorry to nitpick, but I wanted to buy this and had trouble finding it, so I wanted to make it easier for anyone else.
 
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