Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

Book #134: Leviathan Wakes (2011)

author: James S.A. Corey
language: English
length: 19 hours and 8 minutes (1,148 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 May 2017

I got this audiobook on the recommendation of a coworker or manager, I think, when I mentioned I was into sci-fi and looking for a new book to read. So I decided to get it sometime during April, and was listening to it when I went cycling. I had planned to go on something more like a cycling trek during April, but sickness and injury stopped me in my tracks somewhat. But this book was still a nice companion to long bike rides, when I got the chance. It took me a long time to finish, of course – the last audiobook was A Symphony of Echoes, a whole month before this one.

The author, James S.A. Corey, is actually the pseudonym for two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which is a bit confusing. I’m not sure why they didn’t just use their own names – maybe it makes it easier to publish, or something. They wrote alternate chapters of the book, which are from the point of view of different characters.

It took me a few listens to twig that alternate chapters were from disparate points of view. The universe set up by the book is pretty grandiose, and it took a bit of getting used to. The two characters, Holden and Miller, meet up and get split up later in the book, but at first they don’t know each other. And the story takes a while to really get going.

The book is set in a colonized solar system – faster than light travel is impossible, but there’s some kind of constant-thrust drive that makes quick travel easy. This is actually a fairly common idea – it was also in We Are Legion (We Are Bob), for example, although if you’ve been keeping up with my reviews you’ll know I didn’t like that book much, or in Ultima – in those books there was some kind of infinite-like supply of energy that was used to travel interstellar distances. It was also used in The Adventures of Tintin, back in the 1950s, and the effects of gravity on humans reminded me strongly of what happened in the Moon expedition comics. This also made clear one of the other problems with We Are Bob – Bob could go up to 10 g or more without any issues, as he’s a computer projection, but in general the human characters in Leviathan Wakes can only go up to 3 g safely, and have to take a dangerous cocktail of drugs to stay awake and alive at higher thrust levels.

This level of realism made it feel a lot “harder” than the other sci-fi I’d been reading – and in general, gravity is very important to the story, reminding readers of this constantly. There’s rivalry between stocky inner-planet types, who “grew up in a gravity well”, and taller, more spindly types who grew up in the asteroid belt. That brings me to the other thing I liked a lot about this book, which is that it’s very realistic racially and linguistically. The “belters” have a special argot or pidgin that they use to communicate, which is difficult to understand when it’s being read aloud on the audiobook, but lends a special level of realism to the book. I was also glad to see that not everyone speaks English – Russian, Bengali and Hindi at the very least are mentioned a lot during the book.

As the story develops there are a couple of revelations that stretch the boundary of what I’d consider “hard” sci-fi, but this allows the book to also have a mystery feel to it, and even have a few straight-up zombie horror scenes. I imagine it would look exciting on film – and indeed, there’s apparently a TV series, called The Expanse after the name of the book series. I guess I’d better get my act together and try to watch that at some point. I’m not that up-to-date with TV.

Anyway, there are a lot more levels to this story, such as the character Miller’s attachment to Julie Mao, a girl whose disappearance he’s been investigating. And stuff is generally set up and foreshadowed well. So in general, although it took a very long time to finish this book, I enjoyed it a lot and have now downloaded the next book to listen – as of writing this, it’s the next in my queue of things to listen to. But I’m a few weeks behind on reviewing, so it’ll be a while before I get to reviewing it!

Has anyone else read this? What did you think?

Book #133: A Symphony of Echoes (2013)

author: Jodi Taylor
language: English
length: 524 minutes (8 hours 44 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 April 2017

This is the sequel to Just One Damned Thing After Another, a book I listened to back in November about time travel. I was a bit lukewarm about the book, I think – it kept me interested but it was a bit too madcap for my liking.

This book is more of the same. Its historical sections are great and well-researched – this time they visit Edinburgh during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, for example, to try and “correct” the timeline. They also go forward in time to a future version of their institution, but I got confused at this point how far forward it was meant to be.

The book itself suffers a few structural problems: mainly, it’s too episodic. I feel like I’m reading (well, hearing) three or four short stories instead of one coherent novel. It’s unclear what the central conflict of the novel is meant to be. For example, at the beginning, the author introduces Jack the Ripper as this kind of monster that is difficult to kill, which they manage to do, but it’s never mentioned again. Where did it come from? Perhaps it’s for a later instalment of the series – Taylor has been pretty prolific, after all.

On a similar note, there are so many characters and timelines, it’s very easy for Taylor to just kill off characters. Like there’s a character called David, the main character’s assistant – I can’t remember when or how he was introduced, but he suddenly dies in the middle of the story of something unrelated to the main plot, and the main character is upset, but it’s ultimately inconsequential and didn’t really shed any insight.

One of the things I liked about the other book was it didn’t shy away from depicting sexual assault or the other nasty things that women often have to go through, and there was still a bit of that theme, but not as strongly as the first book. It comes up as a moral dilemma at the end, but I thought it cheapened it a bit this time, didn’t quite work as well as I would hope.

The other thing was the narrator of the audiobook. She’s good at accents, but not so good at timing her speech to match the tone of the words. There’s a bit in the middle where the main character is so shocked by something that happens, and she goes on a literal rampage, driven by these words echoing in her mind, and the way the narrator says them doesn’t match to how I think they “should” sound. It was too frantic. It’s not the only example. I feel like she was trying to read through the book as fast as possible.

The book really just needs a bit more focus, because I think there’s a lot of compelling stuff there. As it is it’s a bit of a mess. But maybe that’s the point. After all, the main character is proud – in a very English way – of how messily her cohort all work and how much they love tea. Taylor needs to learn not to apply that quite so strictly to her books, though.

Book #132: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

aka: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
author: Kurt Vonnegut
language: English and some German
length: 313 minutes (5 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 March 2017

I got this on a cheap deal from Audible, and what a coincidence: it’s narrated by James Franco, who I just watched chew the scenery in King Cobra. I’ve been meaning to read some of Vonnegut’s work for a while, as he’s one of those authors that’s constantly referenced in other works – and is rightly considered a classic author of sci-fi.

The book is a kind of comedy about war, written semi-autobiographically about Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden during World War II. In that vein, it fits well with Catch-22, but is less obviously comedic in its outlook. In fact, it is a lot more morbid than that book – Catch-22 waits until near the end of the book when we’ve become emotionally invested in its characters before it starts killing them off, but this book starts right from the beginning.

The story of the book is that the main character Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck in time”, and later kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who can see all of time simultaneously and are fatalistic in their worldview. Billy Pilgrim also adopts this worldview. To this end, every time a death is mentioned in the book (which is a lot), the book uses the Tralfamadorians’ catch-phrase, “So it goes”.

Like all the best books, and especially sci-fi, this book can be read on multiple levels – on the one hand, it’s the adventures of a man who travels through time a lot and meets aliens. On the other, it seems to be a depiction of PTSD flashbacks, or some other mental illness brought on by Billy’s experiences during the war. Also, because of the non-linear way the book is structured, it is probably best to read it two or three times to get everything, to really understand what is going on. Like Catch-22, jumping around so much could leave me confused as to where I was.

I also realized while listening to this that this was certainly the inspiration for the aliens in Arrival. I feel like I’ve read them in the wrong order now!

As for James Franco, honestly I don’t think he’s cut out for audiobook reading. There’s an awful lot of vocal fry and mumbling in this (especially when he repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra), and the book also contains a few sentences of untranslated German, which Franco utterly mangles. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all. Can audiobook producers not screen that kind of stuff before producing an audiobook? I complained about Franco in my review of King Cobra recently – I also just realized that I complained about him (indirectly) in my review of 127 Hours, about five years ago, although not by name because I didn’t know him at the time. That film relied so much on his one performance, and he couldn’t quite carry it.

So I think I’d like to read this book again just to absorb it better, but maybe in print form this time. I think it’s beautifully structured, to the point that a single reading doesn’t quite cut it. Anyone else read it? What do you think?

Book #131: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (2016)

author: Dennis E. Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 10 March 2017

I like science fiction books, and I’ve been through enough of them that most of what Audible recommends me now are sci-fi (that and cheap knock-offs of the Peter Grant books). But sci-fi for me can be hit and miss, and this unwieldily-titled book is for me an almost exact repeat of Ready Player One. It’s compelling enough to finish and has a nice central idea, but doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons – and yet has very high reviews on Audible and Amazon, leading me to try it.

The central idea is that the main character Bob signs up for a new cryogenic freezing project, but his consciousness is instead uploaded a hundred years later into a spaceship intended as a Von Neumann probe – a self-replicating deep space explorer. His job is then to go out to the nearest stars and try to find planets where earthlings can colonize, then to replicate himself and send the new replicants out to other planets, and so on.

I think a lot of its appeal to mid-30s men is that it’s full of pop-culture references. The main character often references Star Trek, for example. One of the 22nd century human characters remarks that he has to brush up on his 20th century sci-fi, and I felt the same way. The other thing is that every time Bob replicates himself the new replicant adopts a new name, often taken from pop culture. Things like Riker from Star Trek, or Homer Simpson, or Calvin and Hobbes. So there is a nice element here if you can recognize the names.

The book also borrows heavily from 1984 with its political fragmentation – there’s an American equivalent, a United States of Europe, and China controlling all of East-Asia. It does have a Brazilian Empire, the main antagonists, an African republic, and Australia, so not as simplified, but when Bob wakes up in the 22nd century they’re talking about the Ministry of Truth in the new American theocracy called “F.A.I.T.H.” – with such name changes, it could get difficult at times to remember what the book’s countries were meant to be.

Basically my main problem with the book is it doesn’t have any coherent structure, and it doesn’t have a proper ending, as it ends on a bunch of cliffhangers. I think the author wants to set up a big space opera setting, but it’s a bit tedious. I would have much preferred something that gave closure on some kind of main plot, but as it is, it’s difficult to say which is the main plot. It splits off after the first replication into one character that stays to try and terraform a planet, another who goes back to Earth to try and sort out the political situation there, and several who go on to other planets. The original Bob ends up finding a “primitive” alien civilization and influences them, while a more introverted replicant finds evidence of a larger alien civilization who have strip-mined a solar system – but this is part of the teaser for the next book, it seems.

The other problem is, there’s just one character, and he’s boring and obnoxious. The book goes to pains to distinguish the new Bobs from one another, giving them new names, and in some cases the narrator of the audiobook tries unsuccessfully to give them new voices (but he can’t imitate Homer Simpson, who ends up sounding like a Minnesotan or Canadian). They talk about how their personalities differ… but it’s not enough. It’s a cast of one guy talking to his own clones. I know this could be done effectively – although it’s a different medium, just look at Orphan Black, for instance, where one actress plays upwards of ten completely different characters. Bob is just a bit masculine in an insipid way, and this book is what a lack of diversity looks like. (There’s also a more minor issue that reminded me of Neptune’s Brood, in that the now-robotic character is hard to relate to in a human way.)

I also had major issues with the tribal culture he comes across. They don’t look like humans, but in every other way, they do. They have two genders, the strong males who do the hunting and the weak females who do the childrearing and gathering fruits and berries. The author even speculates that this might be universal. Like, he can do whatever he wants in his own universe, but I’ll never be convinced that aliens follow the American/Western gender binary. On those last two points, I just want to mention The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – in that case, although I was annoyed that the aliens tended to have a gender binary, it was almost always completely different from what we’re used to. And the set of characters didn’t consist of one guy replicated over and over. It was, in a word, more diverse.

OK, I have one more problem, actually. The fight scenes never left me feeling in jeopardy. None of the Bobs actually get killed in a fight until quite near the end. But as soon as they started replicating, I was hoping the author would consider them more disposable and start killing them off to engender a sense of danger when confronting the other characters. They also use the same tactics each battle. I just got bored with these scenes.

I did keep going with the book because I did want to find out what happened next, and I think there is a sense of wit there. It’s just, it’s not what I would hope for in sci fi. The book closes with humans settling on two planets, that our nerd fanboy main character has named after two planets in the Star Trek universe, and the book’s final line (spoilers lol) is “Roddenberry would be proud”, and I completely disagree – Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a character-driven diverse show that tried to break boundaries in society (viz. the first interracial kiss on American TV and the strong gay subtext between Kirk and Spock)… and this book is an idea-driven book about one straight white American dudebro talking to himself for most of the book. I hate to break it down to simplistic labels like that – I don’t think those kinds of arguments necessarily hold water, but “Roddenberry would be proud” is a strong claim.

So if you want flawed but amusing soft sci fi fluff, it’s okay. It does its job. If you’re expecting more, there’s plenty of better stuff out there.

Book #130: Openly Straight (2013)

author: Bill Konigsberg
language: English
length: 339 pages
finished reading on: 6 Mar 2017

It remains the case, at least from what I can see, that it’s easier to find young adult LGBT novels than it is to find more grown-up stuff. Perhaps my readers have a different perspective? Let me know if you know anything good! Anyway, for me this follows on from similar books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which I read last year. It’s similarly easy to read, and the story is also generally optimistic.

The conceit here is a boy called Rafe who is openly gay, but tired of being The Gay Kid at his school, and wants to be treated “normally”. So he ups and moves right across the country to attend boarding school in Massachusetts, where he decides he’s not going to reveal his sexuality straight away – going back in the closet, as his best friend and family term it.

The arc of the story is very predictable – I could tell what was going to happen within the first two chapters, as all the main characters are introduced. But this predictability is a boon in this genre, actually. It’s comforting to be able to know what will happen next.

The exploration of identity is interesting, but I’m definitely out of the target audience of teenagers still trying to work this stuff out. But I could see parts of myself in it too. I was never “out” in high school, but I would never have wanted to be seen as The Gay Kid. I’m reminded of something my coworker said recently – being gay is important to me but it’s not my primary identity, nor the first adjective he’d describe me with. His impression was that Americans seem to be more eager to make it the centre of their identities, and if I was American I might want to be seen as That Gay Guy.

Not sure about that, but that idea is reflected to some extent here – the other characters are shocked when they find out the main character is tired of broadcasting his identity in such a way, and it looks into the labels we apply to each other. Once he stops broadcasting that he’s gay, he immediately picks up other labels, such as “jock”. And it’s more subtle, but names, too, are very important in the book – the main character goes by different names to different people, and his friend gets angry when people call her the wrong name. I think this was a sensible choice from the author to demonstrate other shifts in identity that everyone makes.

I’m not so into many sports myself, and sports are also a big theme of the book – so I switched off a bit for the descriptions of soccer or American football, but I liked the bits where they went skiing. Selective, perhaps.

It gets very, very awkward at some points, though, in that way of teenagers unable to express their feelings well. Similar to Boys, the last movie I watched, it reminded me in a bad way of the anxiety of coming out.

So while I enjoyed its exploration of the character’s identity, and in general I found it easy to read and enjoyed the variety of characters and situations, I still think I need to get away from stories of coming out and coming of age.

And thus I reiterate my initial request – does anyone know any gay novels that aren’t about coming of age?

Book #129: Magpie Murders (2016)

author: Anthony Horowitz
language: English
length: 947 minutes
finished listening on: 26 Feb 2017

This is one of the bestsellers on Audible at the moment, which is how I heard about it, and it’s a book with a unique conceit, which is why I chose to listen to it. It’s basically a book within a book – and while that’s not in itself a unique conceit, I don’t know of any other books that reproduce an entire fictional book within its own pages.

It’s nominally a crime thriller / murder mystery in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, but it’s actually the story of an editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a book and finding that it has missing chapters at the end, and then trying to find out how the story ends. Meanwhile, the author of the book, Alan Conway, is murdered, and she ends up in her own murder mystery.

The conceit works well in the audiobook format, as the narrator switches to a male voice for the book-within-the-book, and switches back to the female voice for the parts narrated by the editor of the book. The male narrator does well with the fictional book, which is set in a rural part of England, and has a German main character in Atticus Pund (or Pünd, maybe – I didn’t see the name written down, but there was a reference to an umlaut at one point, although neither narrator pronounced it correctly if there was), who is the book’s detective. He had quite a dynamic voice and range of accents. The female narrator isn’t as good at accents, but that works well for her sections, which are narrated in first person and more conversational in tone – she’s doing things like commenting directly on the style and narration of the book within the book. I actually forgot at one point that she was also, strictly speaking, a character in the novel, which is pretty rare! But basically, when she narrates dialogue, the other characters all sound posh, and the Scottish accent she attempted for one character was laughable.

It’s not my first experience of Horowitz’s writing, but the last time I read him must be more than a decade ago – he wrote the very popular Alex Rider series, and I read the first few books when I was young. They were pretty formulaic young-adult James Bond clones, but exciting for teenage boys. I think one even got made into a movie. My brother was also into them, more than me. I actually think Horowitz is still writing them, and I’m sure they’d be interesting to read now, but I’m well out of the target audience. I also read another “adult” book by him, also a long time ago. I get the feeling he’s been pigeonholed as a children’s writer, leading to frequent comments that books like this are a rare break from form for him.

In the book, this is actually reflected in the author who is murdered, who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a murder mystery writer, and that’s one of the many levels that the book works on. Similarly, aspects of the murder of the author are reflected in aspects of the murder in the story he wrote in the story. It gets confusing if you think about it for too long.

But I liked the book for that. In the first half it’s a straight murder mystery in the style of Poirot or Holmes, but also reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s post-Potter work (the Cormoran Strike series or The Casual Vacancy) – a little old-fashioned with its 50s setting in a village.

It then goes ahead and deconstructs itself, and even the whole murder mystery genre, in the second half. At this point it takes on a fairly accurate description of modern Britain (I always appreciate seeing gay characters, even if one of them is the murder victim, and not everyone is unrealistically white), reminiscent again of J.K. Rowling or the Peter Grant series (although that’s a lot more self-conscious about breaking that mould).

Then in the final act, it dives right back in to the murder mystery schtick for the Reveal, first as Susan solves her side of the mystery, and then as she finally finds the missing chapters and we get to hear the solution to the original mystery. And as it goes, there are further excerpts from Conway’s writing and from other characters and authors in comparison, and Horowitz writes each style distinctively and adeptly.

There are also a number of nice twists in the ending, and I laughed out loud on a train when the secret of the detective character’s name is revealed. It was nice to get closure on the story – at one point I hadn’t expected to get it – but the two endings didn’t tie together quite as nicely as I’d hoped.

So I would recommend it overall. It’s not ground-breaking, exactly, but it accomplishes something unique, and going right out of the story in the way this does lends it a special quality. Anyone else read it?

Book #128: Fear and Trembling (1999)

fntaka: Stupeur et tremblements
author: Amélie Nothomb
language: English translated from French
length: 132 pages
finished on: 19 Feb 2017

My coworker gave me this novella when he’d finished with it. It’s a memoir about working in a Japanese company, written by a Belgian girl who came over to work here for a year. It’s the story of what happened to her at work.

It’s very critical of the Japanese work culture, and the attitudes towards foreigners, depicted as pretty horrible. I didn’t quite buy some of it – I have to wonder how much of it is true, basically, and how much is fanciful embellishment. I’m not sure her attitude towards her Japanese coworkers is all that great either. Some parts I just scoffed.

However, I don’t feel like I work at a “real” Japanese company, since I’m teaching English. So I guess this might be more relatable to those working in Japanese offices. Also, it’s about her experiences in the 90s, and stuff has changed since then. Gradually. The biggest scandal now in Japan is about overworking employees – a girl in a major company committed suicide a year ago, and I think some of the parts described in this book match that stereotype pretty well.

I did enjoy the author’s way of describing things – it’s all very floral language, and she takes care over what she says in the book. The tone is also consistent throughout, which helps. I enjoyed hearing the story of a girl who spent some of her early years in Japan, only to come back and be disillusioned. I enjoyed hearing about the female supervisor who she has a crush on, who sees her as an upstart, calls her stupid, and sabotages her career.

Basically I enjoyed reading it, and it didn’t take long – I’m just not sure about her opinions.

Book #127: Catch-22 (1961)

catch22author: Joseph Heller
language: English with some Italian
length: 984 minutes (16 hours, 24 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 Feb 2017

It looks like my other trend at the moment is going through classic twentieth century literature (following 1984), with the help of Audible, which pushes such books on me.

Catch 22 is such a ubiquitous phrase in English, it’s hard to go into this without a preconceived notion of what it means – plus the inevitable question “What’s Catch 21?”, to which I think the answer is, there isn’t one. Joseph Heller pulled the phrase from nowhere, it seems. But I don’t have a very clear idea after reading the book, as it seems to apply to a lot of situations, and may not even exist. Essentially it’s about men trying to get out of the military by exploiting the rules.

I think if I’d read this in high school, as so many others have, I probably would have hated it. I mentioned this a couple of years ago when I listened to a recorded version of Hamlet – I think the intervening ten or eleven years’ maturing have made a big impact on my ability to enjoy these books. I also enjoyed the delivery of the audiobook narrator in this case. Choosing to read a book and being forced will also have a different impact on me.

It’s hard to summarize everything that happens in the book, as it does drag on a bit toward the end. It’s set during the second world war, and is a satirical look at military incompetence. Every other line is something else comedic, people taking their orders too literally, or a dilemma of some kind. It’s quite relentless, and it’s very frustrating to hear the conversations playing out. But I found it very funny too.

I was reminded strongly of Full Metal Jacket (which I’ve seen only the first half of) with the depiction of the military officers. I wonder where this depiction came from originally. Is it real? I have a hard time seriously believing that.

There are also so many characters in the book it can be hard to keep track of – but they all have some kind of backstory or joke attached to them, and the book tries to jump around the different characters. In the first part it does this a lot more and also jumps around time too, making it difficult to follow what happens – in the later parts it starts following a more linear narrative, and near the end more characters start dying, once we’ve become emotionally attached to some of them, and the book takes on a more serious tone.

I liked Yossarian as a character, and I sympathized a lot with his ever-more-futile attempts to get discharged. I liked the weird mid-book section where he follows Milo around a bunch of other countries, who turns out to be hailed as a leader in half the places they visit. I liked the chaplain’s constant internal debates. I liked the commander constantly increasing the required missions for frivolous reasons. I liked the bits (despite the obvious and rampant misogyny) where they go to Rome and interact with the “whores”, but can’t understand each other’s language. I think there were a lot of good moments – if not always tied together very well.

But I’m sure others have made a more coherent summary of this book than I could ever. I’m not really here for that. I want to recommend this book – for the main part, on the strength of its wordplay and characterization. I also liked that the book would call back on a throwaway joke it made earlier – I think this shows a mastery of literary style on Heller’s part, along with his obviously high command of the English language.

What do you think? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who had to read this in school. Is it true that these books are better appreciated once you have a bit more life experience under your belt?

Book #126: Around the World in Eighty Days (1873)

80daysaka: Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours
author: Jules Verne
language: English, translated from French
length: 163 virtual pages
finished reading on: 30 Jan 2017

Recently I got a Kindle again, for my birthday. As long term readers may know, I used to have a Kindle, but my last one broke in early 2014, while I was reading Jumper. I also used to read free out-of-copyright stuff from Amazon and Project Gutenberg – my first was A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes’ first novel with a weird anti-Mormon second half), followed by Gulliver’s Travels, which I didn’t like much. But having a Kindle is still a good opportunity to read all that stuff from previous centuries that I never got around to before, at little or no cost – and that’s what I did here.

This novel is now considered a classic, and it’s often lumped in with early science fiction, despite not really having much in common with it apart from being speculative. In it, the Englishman Phileas Fogg sets out around the world on a wager, after noticing that he should be able to do it in 80 days. This is due to the opening of the Suez canal around the same time, and finally connecting the west and east of India by rail. He’s followed by his servant Passepartout (what a name…), and a detective who wants to arrest him for supposedly stealing money in London before he left.

The book is interesting for a few reasons – it provides an account (although probably not first-hand, as I don’t think Verne actually travelled this route himself) of how the various societies were at the time, such as India and Japan, which have definitely changed a great deal since then. It’s rife with colonial attitudes, since Britain literally owned a lot of the countries they travelled to, but it’s also the perspective of a Frenchman looking in at English people, and Fogg is in many ways a caricature of English people (obsessed with timekeeping and propriety, for one thing).

It gets a bit ludicrous at times, such as the way they end up crossing the Atlantic near the end, but it does keep up the excitement – most countries they arrive in have some kind of danger to overcome. Like the Sherlock Holmes novel above, Verne doesn’t miss the chance to take a swipe at Mormons when the characters pass through Utah, which I found amusing – they must have been a talking point at the time.

This may be something to do with copyright, but one thing I would have preferred would be a modern translation. A lot of the words and structures the translator of the time used wouldn’t be used in modern English, and that just distracted me a bit much (although it contributed to the atmosphere of the time). Thinking about it, a modern translation wouldn’t be available for free on Amazon, though.

And just as a spoiler, I could see the final twist (Fogg arrives back a day early in London because he didn’t take into account that he would gain a day by circumnavigating to the east) a mile off. And I didn’t believe it for a second – Fogg was shown to be much more fastidious than that, and he would have noticed when he arrived in America, not when he arrived in London. I felt like I already knew it was coming, though – perhaps some kind of cultural osmosis?

Anyway, I liked it. I’d like to read more of Verne’s works now. Also, I’m just wondering what to read next on the Kindle… any suggestions? And if you’ve read this book, what did you think?