Some Words on Some Good Books


Back when the Forum was active, members used to report on what we had read, make recommendations, etc. For lack of that outlet, thought I'd catch up here on some recent favorites... just for posterity's sake. These are not the only good books I've read. Their just ones from the last couple years that stick out and that I would generally recommend, regardless of your taste in genre. I tend to prefer a lot of Fantasy, Cyber-Fiction & History, which makes for an odd mix.

The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear (Kingkiller Chronicle)

Fantasy - Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Wise Man's FearCompared to most fantasy books, nothing terribly earthshaking is happening (so far) in the Kingkiller Chronicles (books one and two). No all-powerful rings being destroyed, no cataclysms being averted by a simple farm boy, nobody moving between worlds/dimensions to save simple folk from ruin. All the same, it is a hypnotic series that is hard to put down.

The attraction of Kingkiller Chronicles is great story-telling, and the telling of a story within a story. The main protagonist (Kvothe) is an aging, but legendary hero with deeds both great and terrible to his credit. Kvothe seems to have retired, disappearing from the public eye for some reason and living under a false name. He's found out by a renowned scribe and convinced to tell his life story (under the pretense that it's better for him to tell it than others). Kvothe is a magnificent storyteller, raised as a performer during his childhood.

While Kvothe unravels his entire past, he is interrupted every few chapters by the present. The past might be catching up with him. Why is not clear, nor is it clear that he is up to the challenge. While accomplished in youth, he's gotten old, and he's survived up to now mostly on wits and hard work. It would appear that he's treating the tale of his life as his last great work.

Throughout the Kingkiller books, you learn more about how Kvothe became who he is, which in turn reveals a little more about what may be happening in the present, and how he might deal with it. Suspense is operating on multiple levels here, and you can't help but be dragged along for the ride.

Twilight in the Forbidden City

Chinese History - Author: Reginald F. Johnston - 1934

Twilight in the Forbidden CityA fascinating first hand account of the end of the Qing Dynasty (Manchu Empire) and the tutelage of Pu Yi (the boy Emperor). Contrary to most reports Pu Yi was not the "Chinese Emperor", he was the Manchu Emperor whose territory happen to include China... one of those little details the Chinese overlook when convenient.

A must read for History aficionados. It's not your typical history book based on hundreds of third party sources, but a first hand account written by the only Westerner ever given immediate access to the Emperor, a palace full of eunuch household staff, and other important persons of the time. Johnston goes into great detail on all the events leading up to (and after) Pu Yi's exile and China's early experiments with Republicanism.

The book was the basis for the movie "The Last Emperor" with Johnston being played by Peter O'Toole.

The Great Rehearsal

American History - Author: Carl Van Doren - 1948.

The Great RehearsalAn engaging read that provides a lot of insight into how certain portions of the Constitution ended up how they did and who you have to thank for it. The making of the Constitution was truly a situation where specific individuals made a difference that ended up affecting the whole world. The book also brings into focus compromises made between delegates of small states and large states. Thank GOD for the small states!

One of the most interesting elements of the Constitutional Convention, and one that makes this book so unique, is that the proceedings were conducted in secrecy. Even in that relatively simple time, participants knew that if special interests were allowed to get involved, and had to be pandered to, that they would get nothing of substance accomplished. The creation of the Constitution was too important to subject to the abuses of the media and extremists on either side.

As a result though, it means there is no SINGLE authoritative source for what happened during the proceedings. Van Doren had to scour through multiple sources to piece together the sequence of the discussions, direct quotes, and the main points of the numerous debates.

Good Stuff. Should be required reading in High School.

The Black Company series

Dark Fantasy. Author: Glen Cook. 1984-2000

The complete series is 10 books, broken into three volumes. The first three books are referred to as The Books of the North, the second two - The Books of the South, the last four - The Books of the Glittering Stone. There is a spin-off book, The Silver Spike, which is typically incorporated into The Books of the South. There are also some short stories floating about, and rumors of two more books to come. The last four books are hard to get, I basically had to buy them from collectors. So far:

The Books of the North: The Black Company (May 1984), Shadows Linger (October 1984), The White Rose (April 1985)

The Books of the South: Shadow Games (June 1989), The Silver Spike (September 1989), Dreams of Steel (April 1990)

The Books of the Glittering Stone: Bleak Seasons (April 1996), She Is the Darkness (September 1997), Water Sleeps (March 1999), Soldiers Live (July 2000) 

The Black Company is an elite mercenary company that's been around for roughly 400 years. The books tell 40 years of their story, in first-person narrative. The narrator is the archivist for the Black Company. As this job changes over the course of the books the perspective changes. People come and go from the Black Company, but the Black Company remains.

The services of the Black Company are typically for sale to the highest bidder. As a result, many of their actions are morally ambiguous, to say the least. However, individual members recognize evil when they see it and attempt to steer things towards a better course as much as is practical. This conflict creates a good deal of the story line.

While I enjoyed the entire series, The Books of the North are the gem of the series. Brilliant and exciting writing.  Glen Cook's description of military life in the Company is gritty. War is a nasty business. While there is sorcery (more supernatural than magical) involved in the books, it is not overdone and not used as a primary plot device to bail out characters left and right. It is more of a potential adversary to be avoided.

I enjoyed the Books of the South, but the narrator changes and I had gotten attached to the old guy. By the Glittering Plain, the old guy is back.

I highly recommend the series to Fantasy buffs who are looking for a real change of pace from the standard good vs. evil and 'chosen one(s) saving the world' stories.

Snow Crash

Cyberpunk. Author:  Neal Stephenson. 1992.

Stephenson books are always more than just a story, weaving in history, religion, information technology, philosophy and a view of the future that is becoming increasingly more realistic as the years go by.

Snow Crash takes place in a future when the United States is fragmented, or exists in name only, and most power is wielded by private organizations and wealthy individuals. In fact, what's left of the Federal Government franchises out a significant portion of it's operations.

A good deal of the story takes place in the Metaverse, the virtual-reality based successor to the internet, which is populated by user-controlled avatars and system programs. The main character Hiro Protagonist, self styled "Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world," was one of the creators of the Metaverse but not one who enjoyed the fruits of its success. He learns of a new drug/virus 'Snow Crash' that impacts the infected in real life as well as the Metaverse. This somehow leads to research in ancient Sumer culture, religious cults sponsored by a wealthy monopolist, and all sorts of twisted adventures.

Perhaps it's the likability and style of the main character, but more than any other Stephenson book I've read, Snow Crash is humorous and riddled with memorable quotes. A couple that always stick in my head:

“This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them.”

“There's only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), high-speed pizza delivery”

A Song of Ice & Fire series

Epic Fantasy. Author: George R. R. Martin. 1996-current (unfinished)

Outside of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is the most epic and enjoyable adult fantasy series I know of. This is 'can't put it down' reading at its best. The characters and politics of the series are without par. At heart, it is a story about politics and the machinations of various characters to either stay in power, gain power, make alliances, and settle scores in an ancient land with a very thorough history. Top that off with a little of the unknown and supernatural lurking around the edges, waiting to make its power felt. 

The series is told in third-person through the perspective of a number of characters. The perspective changes each chapter, but the stories are interwoven to tell the grand tale. So far, there are 25 different perspectives.

I have doubts this series will ever be finished, the author is 63 and probably around 300 pounds. However, now that HBO has created the "Game of Thrones" TV series (based on the books) there may be incentive to prioritize it over other projects and get it done. So far, there are five books out of an expected seven. The most recent two books were intended to be one book, but became so unwieldy that publishers demanded it be split into two... which together took 11 years to finish.

So far: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), A Dance with Dragons (2011)

There is some grousing that those last two books were not up to the standard of the first three, but they are no less engrossing and go far in setting up the final books.