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The Plot
The younger son of a relatively middle class family in Meiji era Japan, the narrator of Botchan advances through life with a reckless attitude and next to no thought at all for his future prospects. We follow him through his days as a troublemaking child, the favorite of no one but the family’s servant, Kiyo, through the end of his first job — an ill-fated stint as a mathematics teacher at a small boys’ school out in the countryside. Botchan consistently baffles and astonishes everyone he meets with his lack of interest in political machinations and his unmeasured responses to social norms.

My Thoughts
We begin the book with a sketch of the narrator’s childhood. He grows up with parents who show little affection toward him, who favor his older brother to a very great extent. As a consequence, the family maid, Kiyo, determines to prefer him in all things and attribute to him any number of positive traits which he doesn’t really possess.

The narrator’s mother dies when he’s quite young, and then his father passes away when he’s a teenager. He receives a legacy (courtesy of his brother) after his father’s death, and decides the best course of action will be to spend it upon some sort of schooling. But nothing that requires too much ambition and effort to attain. So he spends three years at a school of the physical sciences, and eventually emerges with enough of a resume to secure himself a position as a math teacher at a boys’ school some distance from Tokyo.

We follow his adventures at the school for the remainder of the book. Like any sort of place of work, there are cliques and petty bickering, and Botchan has no interest at all in attempting to become involved: in fact, while he can sometimes make out the self-serving motivations of others, such backhandedness baffles and infuriates him. Understandably, his tenure at the school turns very rocky as a result.

The original Japanese text of Botchan is now out of copyright, and it’s old enough that even a translation of it is available for free on the Project Gutenberg website. I began my read-through using that translation. Or perhaps I should say transliteration, because there is a difference. As most everyone knows, translating something is a difficult business, particularly when the languages involved are very different from one another. The translator must constantly make decisions about whether to attempt to convey the meaning of a statement rather than a literal translation of the words, since often the latter winds up sounding stilted and awkward. The best translators make the process seem easy, even obvious — of course that’s how you would render that phrase in English! Those less skilled can leave the reader scratching their head, trying to puzzle out what a sentence was actually trying to say.

The translation from Project Gutenberg, unfortunately, swung more toward the ‘less skilled’ side. The rhythm of the sentences was just off somehow, still foreign, and it was very tiring to read. Halfway through I switched to a newer translation which improved things somewhat, though it also resulted in confusion, as the names given to several characters changed abruptly halfway through. (The book, narrated in first person, refers to many characters almost exclusively by nickname.)

It might have been the tough translation or it might not have, but I failed to achieve any sort of connection with the characters in the book. Most of them were not particularly sympathetic, or developed enough for sympathy to be worthwhile. Botchan himself was a slippery character to me. Even though the book is told in the first person, he’s not particularly introspective or thoughtful, so most of what we see are his instinctive reactions to what others are doing and his outrage when they fail to conform to his expectations. I got the impression that we were supposed to find him refreshing, a breath of fresh air, admirable because he was above the sort of infighting and scheming of the others. But he just came off as a thoughtless jerk to me, no better than any of the others. The only unambiguously ‘good’ character in the book is Kiyo, and even she has her own fault of blind (very blind!) loyalty to Botchan.

In Short
I find myself with an ambivalent feeling toward this book even now, some weeks after I finished reading it. I’m glad I read it – because it’s a classic, and from another culture, and has thus somehow expanded my mind by the mere fact of my reading. But was it actually good? I don’t know if I could go that far. I didn’t find it especially amusing or dramatic or endearing. I never felt connected to any of the characters. I may, however, attempt to have a look at the anime rendering of the story to see if it improves my opinion of the content.

The Plot
The day of the summer solstice has arrived, and Asta now knows what’s going on. In fact, several people now know what’s going on — unfortunately, they’re all spread out over the kingdom, which makes it very difficult to warn those at more distant locales. Will the “dragon tamers” of old have their revenge, or will someone manage to thwart their plans?

My Thoughts
It’s pretty much impossible to discuss the events of the final two volumes of the series without massive spoilers, so if you’re reading, consider yourself warned.

Volume 5 picks up where volume four ended — the day of the summer solstice, which is to be the day of reckoning for many people. The five candidates for ruler are about as distant from one another as possible — through various means, the dragon men Ceianus and Gaius appear to have been directing each of the candidates to the location of a different “invisible tower” with the promise that there they’ll find the Key to the Kingdom they’ve been seeking.

Asta has already learned that the mysterious “Key” is a fiction created years ago by Sith Master King of the Dragon Tamers Klavis Draconia and his apprentice Darth Dahres. Five underground towers were created, and at the bottom a pool awaits the arrival of a human sacrifice with royal blood. He and Asloan (separately) now learn once all five towers have their proper keys, Draconia expects to acquire ultimate power and domination over the world.

In the meantime, a number of events have been set in motion. Some by Draconia, some by the dragons, and some by other players in the land. Letty and Asloan both escape their towers without becoming keys, foiling the completion of Draconia’s number one plot. Badd, mortally injured in a fight with Draconia, finds himself called to fulfill the promise he made to Gaius earlier on and surrenders his body to the dragons. And Asta, finding himself on the spot when the troops of neighboring Certes decide to take advantage of the chaos in Landor and attempt an invasion, must find it in himself to protect his land and his people.

Since this book really is ultimately about Asta’s growth from a scared and confused little kid into a young man who will be able to take the throne and rule in a reasonable fashion, it’s not surprising that the majority of our time in the last two volumes is spent dealing with his development. We get a little bit of growth from Letty (and none from Asloan, who already started out perfect) but the focus is Astarion and that’s really as it should be.

The ultimate end, which I won’t spoil, is bittersweet, but fitting. My biggest gripe is that the wrap up was unsatisfactory to me — if you’re going to start by giving a timeline of events following these climactic battles, then you darn well ought to include some information about the rest of our named characters. Just concluding the main story isn’t enough when you have all these extra threads hanging out! But I can say the main story did have a solid end that felt like a conclusion rather than just trailing off as some other manga have done.

In Short
I can see that the author completed the story that she wanted to tell — the story of the relationship between Badd and Asta, and the development of Asta into a young man who has confidence in himself and his leadership abilities. She was successful in this, and it was very well done. But I was still a little disappointed that we didn’t get a fuller sketch of Asta’s life and the lives of the other main characters at the end. It was too quickly skimmed over. All the same, the series was definitely better than average.

The Plot
Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted astrophysicist, frequent television guest, and director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC decided to become an astrophysicist at the age of nine after a visit to the planetarium. Here he muses on the experiences which brought him to his current life and position as a scientist and as a black man in the United States.

My Thoughts
Like many people, I first became aware of Dr. Tyson through his television work — specifically in my case, through his frequent visits to The Daily Show. I always enjoyed his discussions with Jon Stewart, but it wasn’t until they showed the following segment that I really became a huge fan.

(read more…)

The Plot
Thursday Next lives in a world where time travel is possible, cloning is something everyone can do, and where the general population is as passionate about the arts as they are about religion in ours. As a result, literary forgeries, copyright infringements and book piracy are high profile crimes, and Next is a LiteraTec, a detective whose main focus is on dealing with all crimes involving literature. But even she is surprised when crimes against literature turns into crimes against literary characters: after her uncle Mycroft invents a machine that allows people to literally enter a book, it turns out that said machine can also be used to remove characters from the book into the real world. Now the master criminal Acheron Hades is threatening to destroy several of England’s most beloved classics, and Thursday Next has to stop him.

My Thoughts
I had heard good things about this series before we chose to read it, but I didn’t know (and had chosen not to find out) any details, because I wanted to go in without having been spoiled. Having had few expectations, then, it would be a bit silly to say it wasn’t as anticipated — except it wasn’t, a bit.

The world of Thursday Next is an alternate Earth of some kind. Much is similar to our own world, but much more is different. Now, in my past experience with series of books set in an alternate history of Earth, the differences tend to hinge on identifiable differences between that world and ours which have then rippled forward and caused historical divergence. For example, in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, the big difference is the existence of dragons and their kin, and this has affected world history in ways which are still being explored. In Jo Walton’s Small Change books, the UK agreed to terms with Nazi Germany and withdrew from WWII before it really got underway, leaving many of the upper classes still able to indulge their fascist sympathies. The setting in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy may be rather too changed to really be called an alternate history, but Strange Horizons has an incredibly in depth analysis of it available for the interested.

So what am I getting at here? Well, in all of the three examples above, the author has thought carefully about the changes they were making and how the ramifications altered the world. While reading, the worlds make internal sense. This was not the case for the setting presented in The Eyre Affair. There are plenty of changes in this alternate Earth, but they don’t seem to hang together well at all. This is a world where time travel is possible and incredibly advanced bioengineering is embarked upon by amateurs at home — and yet their computers still operate with valves and tubes? I’m sorry, what? The technology is out of whack.

There are also lots of clever asides and nudges at history embedded in the text, a number of which I’m sure I didn’t pick up on, being American and well versed in U.S. history rather than British or European. Some were important: the Charge of the Light Brigade has been shifted up a hundred years or so (the war in the Crimea is still going on as the book opens), for instance, and is an important touchstone for the heroine, Thursday Next, as she is a survivor. Others seemed, perhaps, to be setting up for future plot in the ongoing series, but this was less clear.

Part of the problem is that Fforde seems to have fallen victim to the impulse to say too much about the world, far before it was necessary. There’s a reason authors reveal things slowly and only when they need to: first, excess information can bog down the narrative and confuse the reader; second, once you’ve said something, it’s out there and you’re stuck with it — even if you have a better idea of how to handle it in a later book, when you’re actually going to focus in on it. Sure, you can retcon, but that just makes the fans angry.

A secondary result of the information packing (beyond the added confusion and internal contradictions) was that the actual real plot of the book — the danger posed to literature and to the world by Mycroft Next’s Prose Portal — felt like it didn’t ramp up until well past the midpoint of the novel. Once it did get properly underway, the narrative tightened up almost immediately and became far more readable and coherent. Enjoyable, in fact: it was a good idea and an interesting one, and I think it should have been given more pages than it was allotted. The title of the book, after all, is The Eyre Affair, not How Thursday Next Came to Be in Swindon That One Time.

In Short
This book was hampered by the fact that it wanted to be more clever than it actually was. Fforde didn’t seem to decide until halfway through if he was writing a punny Xanth romp or a novel with a plot that was going somewhere; once he settled on the latter, it got better and wrapped up not unsatisfyingly. For anyone who enjoys trying to pick out every sly reference and allusion in a work, this book would be a gold mine. For those who aren’t as enamored of such things, it’s not bad, if you can wade through the confusion of the first half (which is considerable.) Will I seek out the rest of the series? I can’t say I’m chomping at the bit, but I won’t rule it out.

The Plot
After the King of Landor and his eldest son are killed in battle, the people of Landor (at least the upper class people) are soon embroiled in a contest to see who will succeed to the throne. Five candidates of royal blood begin a quest for the mysterious artifact known only as the “Key to the Kingdom”. Whoever can acquire it within the allotted time frame will win the kingdom.

My Thoughts
After the death of his father and his brother, Prince Astarion, the next heir to the throne, refuses to take over or to allow a regency to be established in his name (he’s 12 or 13 as the story opens.) Rather than settle immediately upon another claimant and possibly spark a civil war, the King’s council wisely decides to organize a sort of contest: all eligible parties (aka those with some sort of blood claim to the throne, however distant) may undertake a quest for the artifact known as the “Key to the Kingdom”. Anyone who finds it within two years will win the kingdom. If no one finds it within the time frame, then the throne will revert to Prince Astarion whether he likes it or not.

Asta finds himself among the candidates, however reluctantly, and he sets off with his brother’s friend Baddorius to see if he can figure out just what this mysterious item actually is. The reader follows their progress, with intermittant updates on Letty (the only female candidate, and Asta’s friend/crush) and later Asloan Fairheart, candidate number 5.

With all of these characters and quite a few mysteries set up, I admit to feeling some concern: this is, after all, only a six volume series, and while 1000-ish pages is quite a decent length for a plain old prose trilogy, it’s actually not a whole lot of manga real estate in which to tell a complex story.

But we get right into the thick of things: the first couple of volumes serve very well to introduce the main characters and the present situation. And once the reader has a handle on the basic setting, the author wastes no time in delving into the history of the kingdoms and revealing quite a bit more about what’s actually going on.

It becomes clear very early on that the day of the summer solstice is going to be key, and the various players spend a span of several months getting into place for what will happen on that date. Volume four comes to a close as that day is dawning, leaving the reader to anticipate what’s going to happen next.

Thus far, the series has impressed me with its pacing. Not only has mangaka Kyoko Shitou resisted the temptation to overly complicate her plot, she’s also doling out important information a little bit at a time, rather than trying to keep it all until the end. I really feel like there’s enough time left for the major points to be resolved, and resolved well.

The characterization has also been good — in fact, I like Asta a lot more than I thought I was going to at the start, and I’ve been extremely pleased by the lack of stupidity shown by quite a lot of the characters. For the most part they seem like alert people who aren’t likely to fall prey to annoying plots like not passing on a vital bit of information for no good reason, or drawing entirely the wrong conclusion about something and acting a fool as a result.

Hopefully the final two volumes will continue these positive trends and bring us to a satisfactory conclusion of the story.

In Short
Mangaka Kyoko Shitou has created an imaginitive pseudo-medieval setting for her fantasy manga The Key to the Kingdom. The first two-thirds of the series is spent setting up the principle players and maneuvering them into place for the climax to come in the final two volumes. It does its job: enough is revealed to the reader to make one interested in the fates of the characters and the ultimate answers to the mysteries not yet solved.

The Plot
Over a period of years, John Gilkey targeted rare book dealers, using a combination of schemes to fraudulently acquire valuable books. Though he was caught many times, he always returned to his predations. Ken Sanders, a book dealer who was also security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, was determined to stop him.

My Thoughts
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book going into it. Reading the cover copy, I was primed to expect something akin to a detective story — a true crime, with the reporter/author tracing the steps made by our heroic bookstore owner as he painstakingly pieced together clues and finally managed to discover the identity of the criminal mastermind who was plaguing the industry.

That’s not exactly what we have here. We have the inklings of such a story – author Bartlett gamely attempts to enlighten us as to the background of our criminal, John Gilkey, and the origin of his schemes, whilst simultaneously providing some information about our “detective”, the bookstore owner and organizational security chair, Ken Sanders. But the attempt falls flat. No tension is created. What little chase and intrigue there is is mostly created in the author’s head.

In fact, the supposed detective essentially vanishes from the story for large portions of the book while the author is completely distracted by following Gilkey around and interviewing him, trying to get into his head. She spends an enormous amount of page space musing on the nature of collecting and the psychological attributes of people for whom collecting becomes an obsession. Still more time is spent while she assures herself repeatedly that she has not fallen prey to any obsession to collect books, even though she seems concerned that this desire is somehow communicable, like a disease.

The story would have been considerably better served by completely jettisoning all of this self-insertion Mary Sue wembling and focusing more directly on the store owners. More details about the crimes, more interviews with the clerks and owners — if your book is going to be billed as a detective story, then you actually need to provide that as your main plot thread. Instead, there were times when I was completely lost in the timeline as we jumped back and forth and Gilkey drifted in and out of prison seemingly at random — and without any impact on his life or any of the bookstore owners.

In the end, what I really wanted was more. I wanted to see more clearly what the impact on the owners was. I wanted to follow the development on both sides much more clearly, with lots of dates and specific incidents described ‘as they happened’. I wanted the book outlined in the first paragraph of the jacket flap copy!

Unfortunately, the book book we got didn’t ever manage to transcend its origins as a magazine article, a completely different beast. We got quite a profile of Gilkey, and though I still felt like I didn’t have a firm handle on his character by the end, I can’t fault the author for lack of trying. But the rest of the tale felt bulked up by personal observations and repetitions just to achieve a certain number of words. And I could definitely have done without the final paragraph inserted hastily at the end — because really, it just made it feel like the whole book was pointless. Nothing changed at all!

In Short
While this was an interesting tale, I came away from this book with a sense of let-down. Perhaps because, while this was a book of non-fiction, it was narrative non-fiction — skirting right along the edges of the True Crime genre. It should have told a complete story. Instead, I felt like it had a beginning, but then it just kind of drifted along until things petered out rather than building to any sort of climax. The cover copy leads one to expect an exciting detective story; a chase. There was no such thing to be found here. From remarks in the text it appears that some of this material appeared as a magazine article first, and it definitely has the feel of a feature. It didn’t quite have the heft to carry a book.

The Plot
As a child, Alan Turing gave little indication that he was likely to amount to anything. But as a young man at Cambridge, he soon revealed his mathematical abilities and his original way of envisioning problems. During World War 2 he contributed in a highly significant way to the British and American efforts to break the encrypted German military communications. And after World War 2 his vision of computers — and computer programs — proved incredibly prescient.

My Thoughts
Most people who know of Alan Turing at all know of him in relation to two things: first, for anyone who’s studied computer science, are the Turing machine (a theoretical model which Turing first posited and which can be used to describe computer algorithms) and the Turing test, a method for determining whether machines had demonstrated the ability to ‘think’; and second, for his work on breaking the Enigma machine during WWII.

But how many people know he was a world-class distance runner who, but for an injury, might have been able to compete at the Olympics? Or that he actually spent much of his last few years attempting to come up with a mathematical description of how and why organisms attain the structures they do? As with any scientist who has become known for a law or a particular experiment, the less famous details of his life often fall by the wayside.

Author Andrew Hodges does a spectacular job here filling in the blanks of Turing’s life. Not only does he dig up details from the extremely thin written record, but he spent copious amounts of time interviewing the people who knew Turing, gathering little details and anecdotes which really flesh Turing out as a person. It’s this part which I find entirely fascinating, as for the most part the people whose biographies I tend to read are so very long dead that such interviews are completely impossible. And, of course, at this point Turing is very nearly such a person himself — but this isn’t a new book, and at the time Hodges was doing his research, a mere 25 years or so had passed since Turing’s death. So plenty of people were still around to talk about him.

In addition to the life details, Hodges also doesn’t shy away from the mathematics, of which there is quite a bit in this book. Enough that I nearly felt like I was going to have to haul out my old college textbooks just to refresh myself on a few things. In the end I did not, because most people probably wouldn’t; neither did I spend a huge amount of time puzzling over the detailed description of how, precisely, the Enigma machine was broken. It was sufficient that I got the gist of it, and knew that I could go back if I needed specifics.

In all honesty, the central portion — Turing’s time at Bletchley Park doing his Enigma-related work — was the slowest of the book due to the amount of mathematical and mechanical detail included. The inclusion of this material contributes materially to how definitive this biography can be, but I’m not going to lie: it was a hard slog to get through. The pre and post-war sections were much more well balanced and thus considerably easier to read.

Hodges, a gay activist as well as a mathematician, doesn’t shy away from Turing’s tricky personal life any more than he does the tricky math. Turing had the misfortune to be homosexual during a period of panic in the government (both in Britain and the US) over the potential for such people to be compromised or blackmailed by the communists. (That their own laws and intolerances are what made the blackmail possible was an irony appreciated only by some.) He also had the misfortune to be a man who was unwilling or unable to conceal his nature by deceit. In fact, some of Hodges descriptions of his eccentricities probably lead the modern reader to wonder if he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. But whatever the reason, Turing did not hide his homosexuality well, and it became a source of trouble for him.

Hodges presents Turing’s death with all of the facts he could gather; he concludes it probably was a suicide, but the evidence either way seemed pretty thin to me. Still, one must acknowledge the fact that the ambiguity might have been deliberate, to give his mother peace of mind.

In Short
It’s unlikely that another biography of Alan Turing will or could come forward to supersede this one as definitive: Hodges has done his work well, and over the past 30 years has continued to collect supporting material (he speaks of publishing an expanded e-book edition on his website) to supplement the already exhaustive research which went into this volume. Turing’s life, his contributions to cryptography and computer science, are all covered in great detail.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (Pink Carnation #1)
The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel has long been revealed, but others have risen to take his place in harrying the French — a country no longer in the grip of the Reign of Terror, but rather now in the grip of General Bonaparte, a far more horrifying prospect for the British. Amy Balcourt has managed to fast-talk herself into a trip to France with her cousin Jane and their chaperone Miss Gwen, ostensibly to visit her brother Edouard, but in reality to seek out the latest of the flowery adventurers, the Purple Gentian, and offer him her services. Amy’s adventures in Napoleonic France are interrupted every few chapters by a parallel modern day plot, featuring a graduate student doing research into all of these masked heroes and trying to put a name to the one known only as the Pink Carnation. Author Lauren Willig clearly intends these books to be a sequel to the Pimpernel series (the Blakeneys are real, though off camera, in this debut outing). Not having yet red the whole of the Pimpernel oeuvre, I can’t say if any contradictions arise, but apart from dialing up the explicitness of the romance subplot in consideration of modern tastes, the feel of this book flows very well along with the breezy adventure of Orczy’s novels. I intend to read through the rest.

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1)
On an Earth where dragons exist, history might be very different — or surprisingly similar in many respects. It is 1806 and England is at war with Napoleonic France. But now added to the naval and ground wars is added the complication of aerial combat via dragons. Novik’s dragons are intelligent creatures, capable of speech and with a great variety of personality which many authors would have overlooked. Clearly inspired by the novels of Patrick O’Brien and C.S. Forester, our hero here, Will Laurence, begins as a naval captain. His crew unexpectedly acquires an about-to-hatch dragon egg after a battle with a French battleship, and rather than permit the dragon to go feral, Laurence finds himself obliged to partner with the young hatchling. He and Temeraire are immediately plunged into the middle of the Aerial Corps, training to take their places amongst the combat wings of dragons that protect England in the air. This first volume is as narrowly focused as an introduction to a world ought to be, but it seems clear from little hints and asides that Naomi Novik has given considerable thought to how the presence of dragons in the world might have affected the direction of human civilization and population.

Agatha Christie is my go-to author when I just need a random book from the library which I know I’ll like and which will probably be checked in. Which, on the face of it, is pretty silly, since I already own every single one of her novels.

The ABC Murders
After playing the DS game of the same name, I had to cleanse my palate by reading through the actual book. This story opens with Poirot and the visiting Hastings contemplating a very new sort of murderer — a serial killer with no apparent motive beyond the name and location of his victims. That all is not as it seems is pretty much a given, but I think this is one of Christie’s more inventive methods for hiding the killer’s true identity.

The Problem at Pollensa Bay
This collection of short stories was for the most part also published in other books and places — a continual problem with Christie short stories, as trying to collect them all means you get multiple repeats of some of them. The stories themselves are a mixture of some of her less well-known figures along with some featuring Hercule Poirot. A couple of them were later cannibalized by Christie and made into novels. Christie, unlike some of her contemporaries, is just as comfortable with the short story mystery as with a novel, and while these may not be among her most famous, they are all quite good and worth reading.

Crooked House
Charles Hayward, son of an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, finds himself drawn in to the family drama surrounding the sudden death of Aristide Leonides, an elderly, wealthy businessman who happens to be the grandfather of the woman Charles hopes to marry. It becomes clear almost immediately that Leonides’ death was no accident, and the family are tense – the only ones with access are they themselves, so one of them is clearly a murderer. Charles, at the request of both his intended, Sophia, and his father, does some unofficial investigating in the hopes of discovering who the real culprit is – even if it turns out to be impossible to prosecute due to lack of evidence. Christie here uses a number of her favorite stock characters – the useless sons, the elderly magnate, the foolish second wife – but the family members feel well-developed for all that, and they all appear to have a legitimate motive for the murder.

Passenger to Frankfurt
I have heard this described as one of Christie’s worst books, and when I read it before, I recalled wondering why. Upon this most recent reread, I can only ask myself what I was thinking to have considered it okay! This spy thriller, written toward the end of Christie’s career, is a spectacular mish-mash of different plots, but the bulk of the book consists of various groups of old white men sitting in rooms fretting about the awful things that ‘youth’ are doing in the world. The problem? Even in the short segments of the book where we are actually out with our supposed protaganist, Stafford Nye, doing things, we never really see any of this supposed anarchy actually taking place. I find it hard to believe that JFK airport would still be operating on schedule if the US had descended into madness, for instance. Throw in Christie’s apparent confusion in thinking that the term ‘third world’ and ‘third reich’ are somehow related and we eventually arrive at an incredibly improbable and vaguely explained conclusion.