Sunday, May 04, 2008

Slacking

I posted about none of the books I read in April excepting Judas Unchained and that because it was the sequel to a book I read in March. It's been nearly three weeks without a post in fact. But, since I have about 10 or 11 books that I would normally have reviewed, I'll just sum up as quick as I can here and resolve (again) to be better and more prompt about this in the future.

The Ellery Queen mysteries are going downhill fast. The last several have already degenerated into plots that most mystery series leave until they are a good 10 books or so into their run. There was The Siamese Twin Mystery in which, yes, Siamese twins are involved and our hero is trapped, along with all the suspects in a house on a mountaintop surrounded by forest fire in which they all expect to die. Now, okay, I'm fine with have the mystery take place in an isolated locale from which no one can enter or leave and the detective has to solve the mystery without the help of any forensic assistance, but a fortuitous forest fire (if you'll forgive the alliteration) seems a bit much to me.

The American Gun Mystery is the sort of exotic locale drama involving characters far removed from the norm of what our hero encounters and odd and unusual codes of conduct and behaviour that have to be deciphered as well as the main facts of the mystery. The solution to this one was especially hard to swallow (hah!). The location was actually still in New York, but the author imports a Wild West travelling show for the purposes of bringing the exotic locale to the hero.

The Greek Coffin Mystery involves a "Greek" coffin only insofar as a Greek was buried in it. The rest is a standard mystery with a "most unlikely suspect" being fitted for the dastardly deed.

The Prisoner is one of my favourite TV shows of all time. It was a superbly interesting show that explored themes of freedom and repression and did so in an intelligent and unique way. If you haven't seen it, I strongly suggest that you do and I'd hate to spoil it for you. But I have to say that the conclusion of the show was one of the worst I have ever seen. Sure, it's from the 60's and it was a bit pretentious in places and the science was on a par with that in Star Trek, but it was easily overlooked because of the underlying material. Until, that is, the final episode. That episode was so over-the-top and allegorical and McGoohan tried to infuse it with so much philosophic nonsense that it nearly wrecked the whole experience for me the first time I saw it. I don't know that I believe him when he claims that was what he had in mind (in a nebulous form) all along. Well, The Prisoner Handbook believes him. And it analyzes the whole show in light of the concluding episode. Avoid it like the plague.

I'd read them before, but I've never spoken of them here. I re-read recently all the short stories by Saki. He's a brilliant writer and an odd sort of combination (in my mind) between Siegfried Sassoon, PG Wodehouse and Lewis Carroll. (If that doesn't pique your curiosity, you have none.) Some of his stories are simply laugh-out-loud funny, some are creepy enough to make you want to leave the lights on when you go to bed and others will provoke you to deep thought.

I've spoken harshly of Bill James here in the past, but The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (apart from the narcissistic title) is a fantastic book. He covers the entire scope of baseball history (up to the year 2000) and presents his thoughts on, well, everything. Who the best 100 players are by each position (yup, he comes up with the best 900 players of all time and doesn't do half bad), the highlights and low-lights of each decade, thoughts on the evolution of the game, comparisons of statistics between eras, changes in uniforms, best nicknames, largest and smallest players... the list goes on. For anyone who loves the history of the game and is interested in it's oddities and arguments, this will be an enjoyable read, if a long one. The book is nearly 1,000 pages and it's practically the dimensions of a coffee-table book.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is an odd departure of a book for Terry Pratchett. He disposes with just about all his usual and familiar characters (though Death, and the Death of Rats, does make a brief appearance), but the effect is not to return him to his former glory and the heights of Pyramids or Guards! Guards!. The book is no better than some of his recent drivel and rather worse than Going Postal. There comes a time to rest on one's laurels, and Pratchett has reached that point. I do regret that he has Alzheimer's and that his writing career will be cut short before he intended, but I think he would be served by putting Discworld to pasture even if he continues able to write for some years yet.

I read another two books by Guy Gavriel Kay since I find Tigana to be such a full and fully realised world. The depth of the world despite the relatively short work was impressive to me and the characters were all very well done. Ysabel, however, disappointed. The characters were good, but the story lacked that certain something and the world was quite firmly our own with some exceptional events integrated into it. On a personal level, I regretted finding out via that book which characters survived from the other book of his I read recently The Summer Tree. It is the first in a series and the survivors from it pop up in Ysabel. The Summer Tree is a more straight-forward fantasy novel in which 5 college students from our world are transported to another fantastic world and end up helping to fight a great evil. The borrowings from Tolkien in this novel are much more blatant and it is more obvious that this was some of his early work. It's well-written (Kay is certainly top-tier of fantasy authors when it comes to wielding a pen), but the plotting and allusions to other fantasy stories are too obviously borrowings. There are two more books to go, and I'll probably read them, but I'm not looking forward to them with great anticipation.

Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is a book that, as you would expect, has stirred up some intense controversy. His thesis, however, is rather unremarkable. Simply put, he points out that fascism is a phenomenon of the left, not the right. These are people who were socialists, after all. You really ought to read the book for yourself, of course, but briefly he points out that we have over the years come to associate the word "fascism" with "racism" or "anti-Semitism", when these were not integral of fascism generally, but with a specific form of fascism (Nazism) or to think of it as meaning "things that are bad", which fascism is, but that's rather too broad a definition to be useful. He also points out the the integral part that the government plays in fascism and the interference in the private sphere by the government is something that is found both on the "right" and "left" nowadays (he's really quite critical of George W. Bush) and says that the conservative (or "classical liberal") counter to fascism is to argue merely to have the government less involved in the lives and businesses of the citizenry. He points out that clearly, we do not need to fear a resurgence of the violent, vicious fascism of the early part of the 20th century (a la Orwell's 1984), but a softer, gentler mothering, smothering fascism (a la Huxley's Brave New World). The state will constrain you for your own good. First they came for the smokers, but I said nothing because I was not a smoker. Then they came for the trans-fats, etc...

Whew! I think that covers everything I intended to review.

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