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Feb 2015
Earth is Room Enough - Isaac Asimov - Panther, 1960
* * * *
My brother and I had the same experience when we encountered the Foundation Trilogy as teenagers. We took them on a holiday to France and although we both usually got sick when we read in the car, we literally could not put the books down. I still consider it one of the great literary experiences of my life, on a par with reading the whole of The Lord of the Rings over a weekend (teenage years are great for an introvert bookworm - all that free time!). So I have a great fondness for Dr A and read various of his novels at college, even a couple of the disappointing sequels which tried to combine his Robots and Foundation universes. This one, a book of short stories mostly set on planet Earth, I never got around to. I had some trepidation about trying it now because my tastes have changed somewhat in the intervening years and I thought that his mid-twentieth century sensibility might start to grate. It is certainly true that his characters have a distinctively 1950s feel to them and his shaggy dog stories no longer amuse me as once they did. But I had forgotten what an effervescent writer Asimov was, and just how prescient some of his ideas were. So I wasn't disappointed at all.

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Jan 2015
The Ides of April - Lindsey Davis - Hodder & Stoughton, 2013
* * * * *
Like most Falco fans, I was disappointed to hear that Davis had given up on her titular hero and was concerned that her new sequence featuring Flavia Albia, his adopted daughter, would turn out to be a pale imitation of the original. Which only goes to show that one should never listen to fans. The Ides of April is Davis' best book in years, with a colourful setting, a tight and (mostly) logical plot and a new and interesting perspective on Roman life. And the change in lead character is almost entirely responsible.
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Dec 2014
Tales of the Dying Earth - Jack Vance - Gollancz, 2002
* *
The four books of the Dying Earth series form one of the great fantasy sequences of the twentieth century. They have been hugely influential, not least in the bizarre magic system of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game which steals the idea of a spell erasing itself from your memory once spoken, forcing a magician to re-learn it before it can be used again (a handy way to stop magic from becoming overpowered, but frustrating for the player who ends up with nothing to do once they have used all their spells for the day. My magic-user character used to carry a set of cheerleader pom-poms that he would get out and wave to encourage the other players when there was nothing more he could do in a fight.)

So I wanted to like them. I really did. Jack Vance is a great stylist with a wonderful vocabulary and one of the most inventive imaginations in SF. But his characters, oh dear.
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Dec 2014
The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst - Picador, 2005 (Kindle edition)
* * * *
For the English, the Conservative Party is the political equivalent of comfort food. We know it's bad for the country in the long run, but it is a known quantity and it offers tasty things like tax cuts. So as we enter another period of Tory hegemony, it seems an appropriate time to review a book set during the last one, if only to remember what we have let ourselves in for.

The title has several meanings. It is Hogarth's description of the ogee, the double curve arch introduced from the Arab world. For the gay protagonist, Nick Guest, it represents the shape of a man's back and buttocks. And it refers to the cocaine frequently snorted by some of the main characters, much to their detriment, and somewhat to the book's.
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Behind once again, so here is a round up of some of the lighter books from last year.
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Sep 2014
The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt - Little, Brown, 2013 (Kindle edition)
* * * *
Donna Tartt really needs to publish more often. Each of her books has been good but each has had flaws that stop them being classics. This one is no exception. The writing is mostly brilliant; there are some lovely and original turns of phrase and the characterisation is as strong as in her previous works. But there are problems with the book's structure and a few inconsistencies in the telling that grate.
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Aug 2014
Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions - Gerd Gigerenzer - Penguin, 2014 (Kindle edition)
* * * *
I bought this book because Gigerenzer is one of the few people to criticise Daniel Kahneman's overrated theory of fast and slow thinking. He particularly objects to the assumption that fast, instinctive estimates (Kahneman's system 1) are inherently more error-prone than considered thought (system 2). Not so, says Gigerenzer - the two systems are not separate and we can and do use both together. He points out that quite simple heuristics - rules of thumb - of the sort used in system 1 thinking can often be more effective in finding workable solutions than considered thought; as he puts it, "it is often better to be roughly right than precisely wrong". He illustrates the effectiveness of heuristics in a wide range of fields from banking to healthcare to aircraft safety, and while he clearly has a few bees in his bonnet, I can't help thinking that he is right.

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July 2014
Ancillary Justice - Anne Leckie - Orbit, 2013 (Kindle edition)
* * *
I thought that for once I would get with the times and read the buzziest SF novel of the moment. This book has won the BSFA, Locus, Nebula, Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards which is an extraordinary achievement for a first novel and suggests that it is something special. Well, I can only conclude that either I am finally growing out of SF (gods, no!) or that this has been a rather thin year. It's a perfectly decent story with some interesting ideas, competently told. But it has some serious flaws and certainly didn't engage me as much as it should have.

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July 2014
The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith - Sphere, 2013 (Kindle edition)
* * * *
After wrestling with the dry complexities of Spinoza's Ethics for several weeks, and having - rather remarkably - run out of books to read, I felt it was time for something light and fluffy. So it seemed an appropriate moment to find out what J.K. Rowling has been up to since the end of Harry Potter. Well, she hasn't been working on her writing style. I tried a taster of A Casual Vacancy because Ayckbourn-style black comedy is usually up my street, but bounced off the lumpen prose and unmemorable characters of the first few pages (if it improves, do let me know). The Cuckoo's Calling seemed more promising. I know I have inveighed against poor writing in genre fiction in the past, but truth be told, a clumsy style is less of a problem when there is a compelling plot or an interesting world to explore. And Rowling is not a bad writer, merely an inelegant one. You aren't brought up short by solecisms, but simply by the thought that a particular sentence could have been phrased better. Well, you know what? This is a good detective novel, not startlingly original but with interesting characters, a believable setting and an intriguing plot. And if it were not for one fatal flaw, it would be a great one.
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July 2014
Ethics - Benedictus de Spinoza, tr. Andrew Boyle - Heron Books, 1971
* * *
At the age of twenty-three, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, ostensibly for heresy. I think it was because he was annoying. The Ethics is full of bold propositions about God, mind and the emotions, expressed as Euclidean-style proofs with a smug little Q.e.d. at the end of each one. He must have been infuriating to argue with, so certain of his own correctness and reason, refusing to listen to arguments based on anything else. I imagine him as an unholy combination of Richard Dawkins and Jeremy Clarkson.

Which is not to say that I don't admire him and the intellectual edifice that is the
Ethics. There are some very interesting and thought-provoking ideas and I like the logical way in which it is set out. Some of his arguments are in my view specious or dependent on unstated assumptions, but one has to admire his ambition.
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June 2014
The Republic of Thieves - Scott Lynch - Gollancz, 2013
* * *
I have only just realised the extraordinary similarity of the two main characters of this series, Jean and Locke, to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the protagonists of Fritz Leiber's seminal Lankhmar stories that kicked off the whole swords and sorcery sub-genre. Both feature a pair of rogues, one big, solid and dependable, the other small, weak and quick-witted. Both involve capers set in worlds with overpowered magic. Both are largely urban in nature, with very little feel for life in the country outside.

The comparison hadn't struck me before because of one significant difference, which was the agency of the heroes. In the Lankhmar books, the protagonists have wizardly patrons, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, who often send them on quests, whereas in the first two Gentleman Bastard books, Jean and Locke are free agents who set up their scams for reasons of their own. But not this time. Due to complications occurring at the end of Red Sea under Red Skies, Locke and Jean find themselves working for a Bondsmagus called Patience to rig an election in Karthain. An original and entertaining idea to be sure, but the lack of agency is a problem.
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May 2014
Wonderbook - Jeff Vandermeer - Abrams, 2013
* * *
I have quite a few how-to-write books in my collection, of which my favourite by some distance is Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft for its advice on focus and pacing rather than the nuts and bolts of plot, character and style. This one is more traditional in its concerns, but I was enthused by its uniquely visual approach, with the text supplemented by a rich supply of strange diagrams and images. Having a strongly visual imagination, I am a great fan of pictures and maps to explain things, so this was a book that I was excited to read. Sadly, they turned out to be more a hindrance than a help.
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Apr 2014
Morris and Benny's Uncanny Adventures - Alice James - 2014
[Disclosure: This is a review of a book written by a friend, and is based on a draft copy.]
Since the sad loss of one of Britain's National Treasures and the retirement of Harry Potter, the modern-day family-based fantasy has been in eclipse, supplanted by dystopian novels aimed specifically at teenagers and their feelings of estrangement. This is a pity. Books which are aimed at a specific market, or which exclude potential readers by failing to represent them, are in my opinion poor books, no matter how well written. It's about time that there was a revival in the Diana Wynne Jones-style family fantasy that anyone can read, and Ms James has provided it.
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Apr 2014
The Night Watch - Sarah Waters - Virago, 2006
* * *
I cannot think of a truly satisfying reverse chronology novel, though I am pretty sure that one can be written. One requirement is that the chronological ending must be clear and definite, but not immediately comprehensible. The characters must be compelling, so that the reader really wants to understand why the chronological ending happened in the way that it did. And the initial events the trigger the whole story must be dramatic, so as to form a satisfying climax to the book. Waters gets two of these right - it's just a shame about the third.
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Mar 2014
The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner - Richard Marson - Miwk Publishing, 2013
* * * *
Dr Who has had a surprisingly large effect on my life, even though a traumatic early experience (the maggots in The Green Death) meant that I found it much too scary when I was in its primary target age range. I first started taking an interest in the final Tom Baker season, being impressed by the ingenious way in which ideas introduced earlier in the season, such as e-space, Charged Vacuum Emboitments and the Master's return, were all brought together in Logopolis. The following season introduced a new Doctor, Peter Davison, who felt fresh and modern after the hamminess of Baker, and there were some clever storylines such as Castrovalva and Kinda (rubber snake not withstanding), culminating in Earthshock, a story that actually lived up to its name. It is the first time I can remember being profoundly moved by something on television, and it's not an experience I have had very often since.

The fact that I remember the episodes so well shows what a profound influence it had on my imagination. But that was not all. My brother and his friend Richard started putting together tape-slide presentations of favourite Dr Who stories. Then portable video cameras became hireable from a local shop, and with the tacit support of my parents, they made a spectacularly amateur version of Pyramids of Mars, roping me in to play one of the bad guys. After that there was no stopping them. For over a decade they produced at least one film every year, starting with adaptations and then original scripts (I wrote a couple of them). They built up a team of actors and technicians under the name Mattol, derived by combining their surnames. From that group has come some life-long friendships, two professional actors (including one you will probably have heard of) and a TV producer. Not bad for a bunch of teenagers messing around with a video camera.
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Feb 2014
Raising Steam - Terry Pratchett - Doubleday, 2013
* * * *
I shall never forget reading The Colour of Magic when I was a teenager. The combination of laugh-out-loud one-liners, the gentle satire of well-known fantasy series (Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, Anne MacCaffrey's Pern and H.G. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos) and an original setting where the consequences were thought through (for example, that a world that was a disc would have an edge that you could explore, and if you were unlucky, fall off) was like nothing else I had encountered. This tension between humorous invention and world-building has permeated every one of the subsequent thirty-nine books in the sequence, and the various admixtures have led to the different strands, with the greater social realism of the Ankh-Morpork-based Vimes and Moist von Lipwig novels being balanced by the funnier and more whimsical "witches" and "death" novels. Being a fan of anything that can make me laugh, I generally much prefer the latter to the former, and it is a sadness to me that Pratchett seems to have chosen to focus exclusively on the realistic mode (a case in point - Discworld has become so real that it now has a proper map showing where Quirm, the Ramtops and Uberwald are in relation to each other, which does not accord with my imagined version of it). But Pratchett is a genius, and even without the jokes and the invention that characterise his best work, this take on the coming of steam and its consequences is an interesting read with important things to say.
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Feb 2014
Myra
Breckinridge & Myron - Gore Vidal - Abacus, 1993
* * *
"I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess." It's a good first line and it tells you much about the character who utters it. She is clearly strong-willed and self-confident, believes in the battle of the sexes and is utterly determined to win it. There is also a certain lordliness of tone, perhaps even arrogance, which suggests that she may not be entirely likeable. A thought that is worth hanging on to as the novel proceeds.
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Jan 2014
50 People who buggered up Britain - Quentin Letts - Constable, 2008
*
[It is ten years to the day since the first posts in this blog. Given that my one of my intentions in starting it was to point readers at worthwhile books, it is somewhat ironic that today's review is of one that really isn't. But that's the way it goes...]

Anyone who has perused this blog before will doubtless be unsurprised to hear that I am not a regular reader of the Daily Mail. In fact I consider it one of the more pernicious elements of modern British society. But I am also aware that my liberal biases are not necessarily intellectually sound and sometimes seek out more right-wing and conservative opinions to test my opinions. This applies to humour too. There is nothing intrinsically unfunny about right-wing or conservative humourists - while preferring the vaguely left-wing chatter of, say, The News Quiz, I have read and enjoyed books by the likes of P.J. O'Rourke.

This one, however, left me completely stone-faced. Written by the Daily Mail's parliamentary diarist, it is a series of character sketches of the people who, in the author's opinion, have made Britain the miserable dump that it is today. This would be fine if they were funny or insightful, but they're not. They are merely depressing.

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Jan 2014
Alexandria - Lindsey Davis - Arrow, 2010
* * *
Briefly, since I no longer have the book - Falco and Helena are on their travels again, this time to the city of Alexandria to visit Falco's Uncle Fulvius and his partner. They become suspects in the death of Theon, a scholar working in the fabled library. But who among the posse of bureaucrats and heads of department could have wanted him dead?

As always with Davis, the research into ancient Alexandria is superb and the reconstruction of the library and its organisation are highly convincing. Helena is of course present and feisty as ever, and the unwanted appearance of Falco's father Didius and an old friend adds to the fun. However, as is so often the case with the later Falco books, the resolution of the murder mystery is disappointing, with too many side-plots that seem to be there mainly to incorporate interesting tidbits of information from Davis' researches. And the primary theme - bureaucracy and its corruption - makes for a distinct lack of action.
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Jan 2014
The Brain that Changes Itself - Norman Doidge - Penguin, 2008
* *
My grandfather, who died when I was eight, was a scary man, but it wasn't his fault. Some years before I was born he had an operation to remove a blood clot. There were complications, and he had a stroke that left him unable to speak except in inarticulate groans that only my grandmother could understand. The surgeons also had to remove his leg, and the sight of the pink stump where his knee should have been and the weird contraption of his prosthetic leg were both disturbing and fascinating to my childhood eyes.

I tell this story as a corrective to the ones that are in this book. Like How to Win Friends and Influence People, Doidge relies largely on personal anecdotes to make his triumphalist points about how harnessing neuroplasticity and the "power of positive thinking" can transform lives. But there is a reason why scientists do not admit the experiences of individuals as reasonable evidence for knowledge, which is that they differ. My grandfather was an intelligent man, but after his stroke he never managed to learn to speak again. Brain plasticity only goes so far. Sometimes - usually - the damage is too great.
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