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Nov 2015
A Sting in the Tail - Dave Goulson - Jonathan Cape, 2013 (Kindle edition)

* * * * *
It says a lot for the basic decency of my next-door neighbours that we are still on speaking terms, given that we have diametrically opposed views on what constitutes a good back yard. They have recently turned theirs into a wall-to-wall paved patio with an admittedly attractive sun motif but not a green shoot in sight. My garden, on the other hand, is messy and weedy, with unkempt lawns that are only fifty percent grass and plants with a tendency to grow like topsy until I get around to pruning them back. There is a reason for my neglect, which is that I am trying to make my garden a resource for wildlife in general, and in particular for my favourite insect, the bumblebee. I consider it a real achievement that last year I had a nest of them under my rotting garden shed, though it was rather alarming to see them drifting around the doorway in a vaguely threatening manner when I went to get out the lawnmower.

My enthusiasm, however, is as nothing compared to that of Dave Goulson, who has not only made a career of studying bumblebees but has founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to promote them. I knew that we would get on when he mentioned Gerald Durrell's Corfu Trilogy as one of his formative influences, and his writing style is similarly autobiographical and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Unlike Durrell however, Goulson is an academic and brings a scientist's rigour and clarity to his descriptions of bumblebee life and its many mysteries.
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Aug 2015
The Martian - Andy Weir - Del Rey, 2014

* * * * *
This book has now become a hugely popular film, but in 2011 Weir had to self-publish it because no agent would touch it. In hindsight this seems weird - it is competently written and has an incredibly engaging lead character, a suspenseful plot and an interesting and well-researched setting. I can sort of see what the publishers had against it, because it breaks pretty much every rule in the author's manual. Which of course is what makes it great.
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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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Sep-Nov 2012
Miles in Love - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen Books,2008
* * * * *
I needn't have worried. Even without a galaxy-spanning setting, Bujold can still craft compelling science fiction with something interesting to say. Though it helps that this compendium of novels have as their overriding theme that old reliable standby of the screwball romance. Strange as it may seem given my generally emotionally muted demeanour, I am a sucker for such stories. As long, that is, as the protagonists are equally strong personalities, for example Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, my favourite Shakespeare.

And the characters here are certainly strong. He, of course, is Miles Vorkosigan, the (sometimes) brilliant but stunted military commander of several previous books. She is Ekaterin (Kat) Vorsoisson, the unhappy wife of a minor official on the icy planet of Komarr, a world conquered by the Vor because of its strategic importance as a gateway to the wormhole nexus that connects the galaxy. They meet when Miles is sent to investigate a space freighter that has crashed into the soletta array that is warming the planet. Was it an accident, or was something more sinister afoot? And could it be connected to the impending nuptials of Emperor Gregor and his Komarran bride Laisa?

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Jul 2012
Gifts / Voices / Powers - Ursula Le Guin - Orbit,
* * * * / * * * * * / * * * *
Now this is more like it. Rather than trying to retrofit a classic, Le Guin has written a new trilogy of books called the Annals of the Western Shore. Ostensibly they are for young people, but the only thing that makes them so are the teenage protagonists. The other linking factor is a love of literature, hence my alternate title. It also reflects the patient attitude that you have to bring to the stories. There are very few maps to fish you in, the magic is next to nonexistent and the plot synopses would frankly have bored my teenage self to tears. But bring the patience that you would bring to a classic novel by Dickens or Austen, wait for the stories to unfold, and they will reward you with their subtle and mature insights.
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Jun 2012
Germinal - Emile Zola - Penguin Classics, 2004
* * * * *
I love it when I encounter a book that surprises me, and this one certainly did. I originally put it on my wishlist out of a sense of duty. Having read most of the significant British Victorian novelists, I thought it was time to give some of the continental ones a go. With Zola, I decided to start with what is generally regarded as one of his two best works, because quite frankly I couldn't see myself getting round to the rest of his prolific output (Germinal is the thirteenth of his monumental 20 novel Rougon-Macquart sequence, and he wrote a dozen others as well). The only things that I knew about him as a person was that he wrote J'accuse, the open letter which exposed anti-semitism in the French state in much the same way as the Stephen Lawrence case revealed institutional racism in the UK, and that he was a leading exponent of naturalism, a literary movement seeking to depict a grimy and gloomy everyday reality. So I had expected this tale of a strike at a coal mine in northern France to be heavy-handed and moralistic, like Dickens but without the imaginative turns of phrase, memorable characters and flights of fancy. What I hadn't expected was that it would I would have to completely revise my notion of what a Victorian novel can be.
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Apr 2012
The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss - Gollancz, 2011
* * * * *
I must say that I am very disappointed with the experience of aging. I have long considered myself an overly impatient person, always wanting to move on to the next new thing. This I thought was due to excessive energy, a situation that would naturally right itself in time. Eventually as the fires of youth faded I would learn patience and serenity, and all would be well.

Ha! How naive. Yes, the energy levels have declined, but instead I find myself turning into a grumpy old man (my only comfort is that this seems to be happening to a number of my contemporaries as well). What I hadn't factored in was the increasing awareness of my own mortality and the concommitant rise in irritation with people who want to waste my time. I have become fairly good at giving very short shrift to doorstep salesmen, cold callers and religious proselytisers. I can tune out advertisements on TV or the web like a pro (middle-aged memory failure is mostly an annoyance, but it is really helpful in this case - the earworms and images that advertisers try to foist on us simply don't stick). But books are a problem. I almost never give up on a book that I have started, and this makes me particularly unforgiving when, looking back, I realise that the author has forced me to spend hours reading wodges of material that hasn't materially advanced the plot. Nowhere is this sin more common than in epic fantasy, hence my oft-repeated animadversions against fantasy author's bloat.

Well, in terms of plot development, Rothfuss has certainly been wasting my time. By the end of the thousand pages of The Wise Man's Fear, the main storyline has hardly advanced at all. But nonetheless, it's all thoroughly enjoyable - so much so that I still regard this as having the potential to be a classic. Which almost makes me more cross than if it hadn't.
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Oct 2011
Return to the Whorl - Gene Wolfe - Tor, 2001
* * * * *
Well, my plea was answered - my father very kindly ordered this book all the way from the United States, so I have now completed Wolfe’s New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun magnum opus (alas, another case of “House!” in author bingo). It is an effective and satisfying end to the whole sequence, though as is so often the case with Wolfe, the denoument is a bit of a let-down.
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Sep 2011
The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss - Gollancz, 2007
* * * * *
There is a formula for writing genre novel back-cover blurbs. Most mention the name of the main character in the first full sentence and go on to describe the original features of the world and the heroes and villains. The final sentence starts with “But” and often ends in an ellipsis... This has become such a cliché that various automated generators have sprung up on the web. The blurb for this book is a bit different. It is written in first person and describes some things that the narrator claims to have done, such as burning down a town, being expelled at a very young age from university, and talking to gods. It ends “My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.” My interest was piqued, despite the stupidly unpronounceable name.

Unusually, the blurb is a good reflection of a book that takes a similarly refreshing approach to the business of epic fantasy. This is not the first autobiography of a fantasy hero that has been written (Robin Hobb’s Assassin series comes to mind for a start), but, for this book at least, it is certainly the best.
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Jul 2011
The Holy Machine - Chris Beckett - Corvus, 2011
* * * * *
You are unlikely to have come across Chris Beckett unless you read the science fiction magazine Interzone, to which he has been a regular contibutor for many years. His stories always stood out for me because of their strong rootedness in urban Britain, a setting informed by his day job as a social worker. He is most certainly not an SF writer who could be accused of having no interest in people, and all his stories make observations about the nature of being human through the use of fantastical motifs. They are, in other words, proper science fiction, doing what science fiction ought to do.

It is often difficult for short story writers to find a publisher for their longer works and this one is no exception. It was originally released in the USA by a small independent press in 2004 and has only recently received a mass-market paperback edition in the UK. This is exceptionally pleasing, for it is a significant SF novel with things to say about the bang-up-to-date question of the co-existence of science and religion. It is also an affecting story about robots and humans and the potentially hazy border between the two. It thoroughly deserves to be more widely read.
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Nov 2010
Thursbitch - Alan Garner - Vintage, 2004
* * * * *
Alan Garner is one of my favourite writers who has created some of my most memorable reading experiences. The Owl Service, Elidor and particularly Red Shift (possibly the most upsetting book I've ever read) all stick firmly in the mind.

One of the reasons I like him so much is because of his obvious respect for the intelligence and time of the reader. He is his own most ruthless editor, paring down the dialogue and the description to the bare minimum needed to carry the story and leaving the reader to puzzle out the emotions and the meaning of the sometimes impenetrable dialect in which the characters speak. This last can be taken so far that it becomes a distraction (as it is here), but has the interesting effect of forcing the reader to use the part of the brain normally reserved for reading the rhythms of poetry, enabling Garner to convey impressions and feelings that cannot easily be transmitted by text alone.

This technique results in strongly atmospheric novels in which a sense of power and foreboding hangs over every page. Nowhere is this more evident than in Thursbitch, and here it works particularly well. For the main character is not the four people around whom the story revolves, but the landscape itself.
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Jan 2011
Finishing the Hat - Stephen Sondheim - Virgin Publishing, 2010
* * * * *
Examine my CD collection and you would probably conclude that Stephen Sondheim is my favourite composer. While that isn't quite true, I do consider him to be a genius who has almost single-handedly developed the musical from a lightweight entertainment into a substantial art form with important things to say about human nature and society (in contrast to contemporary opera, which if anything has moved in the opposite direction). Many of his songs also have a strong emotional resonance for me, particularly the ones that he likes most himself: Finishing the Hat and Someone in a Tree, the last such a perfect evocation of the joy of being young, alive and in the moment that it regularly makes me cry. So a book by him was always going to be on my wish list.
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Jun 2010
Nation - Terry Pratchett - Corgi, 2009
* * * * *
This is a very unusual book from Mr Pratchett. It is his first in many years that is not set in the Discworld. Despite being ostensibly a young adult novel, it is also notably more brutal, based as it is on the grim notion of an entire island society being wiped out by a tsunami and clearly inspired by the events of Boxing Day 2004. But it is also a book where Pratchett's philosophical preoccupations are unusually to the fore, and one of the few in which they are properly worked out.
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Apr 2010
Lavinia - Ursula Le Guin - Gollancz, 2009
* * * * *
At the risk of displaying the very habit of categorisational thinking that certain of its adherents decry, I would like to make an observation about feminism (hey, we all have a gender so it's a game that everyone can play). Its various forms fall into two main schools of thought that closely mirror the left-right split in politics. One - espoused in liberal, socialist and post-modernist feminism - argues that gender roles in society are socially constructed. Men and women can perform the same roles and there should not be artificial barriers of law or social expectation preventing, say, a woman from being a bishop or a man from raising a child. Another view, which I think is what radical feminists are saying, is that women are naturally different from men and that the issue is that social institutions and cultural practices - especially those of science and technology - do not adequately reflect (and in fact actively work to suppress) women's ways of working and thinking. The difference between the two lies in the recommended solutions to the practical problem of the under-representation of women. The former favours a technocratic approach where equality of law or class eventually leads to social parity, while the latter implies that no amount of gender-neutral law-making or socialist revolution will fix the issue and instead we must learn to live with and mitigate as best we can the inevitable conflicts between male and female ways of looking at the world.

Ursula Le Guin has investigated both these types of feminism in her writing, but in her middle- and late-period work she seems to me to incline towards the "naturally different" view. Certainly one or two of her books are off-putting for male readers - Always Coming Home, with its recipes and less than subtle fables of male brutality (oy! I'm a man but I'm not brutal, so stop lumping me in with men who are!), is one that I am unlikely to read again. But another theme that runs through Le Guin's writing is the Taoist balancing of opposites, and in Lavinia she finds a way to infuse the strongly masculinised world of Virgil's Aeneid with feminine values and concerns without denigrating the former. The result is a triumph, and a book that I shall definitely come back to.
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Oct 2009
Collapse - Jared Diamond - Penguin, 2005
* * * * *
I was walking down Cornmarket Street in central Oxford the other day when I passed a Christian proselytiser who was talking about the greatest threat to our society. His answer was crime. I had this book in my bag, so I pulled it out and waved it. "No, you fool, the greatest threat to our society is eco-collapse! And this book will tell you far more than yours does about what causes it and how to avoid it!"

Now the foregoing is of course a lie. I am much too polite to interrupt a nutter in mid-rant, much less call him a fool. But I wish I had, because this is, I think, an important book. It follows on from Guns, Germs and Steel, but reverses its premise by asking why some societies die out rather than develop. His answers have relevance to us all.
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July 2009
Pompeii - Mary Beard - Profile Books, 2008
* * * * *
One of the problems with the traditional western philosophy of individualism is that it treats people as if they were metaphorical billiard bills who interact by bouncing off each other. In my view, this is incorrect - a better model of human personality is that we are nodes in a network, each one of us a unique and complex tangle of our interactions with other humans and things in our environment*. One of the ways in which the network manifests is what happens when someone dies. In the billiard ball model, it shouldn't matter - there's simply one less ball to bounce off. But we all know that this isn't true. Bereavement leaves long-lasting and sometimes bizarre effects, as would be expected if the relationship threads connecting us to the dead person were flapping loose and changing who we are.

I mention this because it might explain one of the odder ways in which I remember my mother, which is to watch or read things that I would not otherwise be interested in - like bonnet-buster tv series - because she would have done if she were alive. This book is a case in point. She loved history, but her interest was not in its epic sweep, grand personalities or major battles. What she liked was social history, the colour and texture of everyday life. She made scrap books with pictures culled from magazines, books and photographs which traced the development of furniture or clothing styles down the ages, and her interest in dolls houses (notorious to certain readers of this blog) was chiefly about the imaginative reconstruction of domestic interiors from different historical periods. She never did a Roman scene but this book, with its quirky insights into Roman everyday life as deduced from the findings at Pompeii, would have been absolutely grist to her mill and would, I think, have inspired her to try. And I must say that I enjoyed it too.
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Mar 2009
Black Ships before Troy - Rosemary Sutcliffe, illus. Alan Lee - Francis Lincoln, 2000
* * * * *
I put this one on my Amazon wish-list because it was a Rosemary Sutcliffe that was new to me. I was expecting an authoritative re-telling of the Homeric epic in Sutcliffe's wonderfully vivid prose - what I hadn't spotted was that it is in fact a "childrens'" book with illustrations by Alan Lee, the well-known Tolkien illustrator and one of the art directors of the Lord of the Rings movies. Fortunately Sutcliffe is far too good a writer to dumb down for children, and Lee's illustrations perfectly complement the story with their rich evocation of the ancient Greek world. The result is a minor classic and the best version of the Iliad that you are ever likely to read.
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Dec 2008
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - Oxford University Press, 2008
* * * * *
Truth be told, Dickens is not as great a writer as some critics and literary academics have made him out to be. He has an eye for character and a way with words, but his novels can be preachy, digressive and appallingly sentimental, with viewpoint characters who are thin moral ciphers rather than real people (exhibit A: The Old Curiosity Shop). These weaknesses, especially if encountered in an uninspiring educational context, must have created a legion of the Dickens-phobic, and it is possible that you, dear reader, are one of them. In which case, this review is for you.

Firstly it is important to acknowledge that your antipathy is not at all unreasonable (or unusual: a google for "I hate Dickens" returns 352,000 results). If you are intolerant of emotionalism or implausible characterisation, Dickens is always going to be a hard sell, and I am certainly not going to argue that Great Expectations is free from them. But it has a focused three-act plot structure, a flawed and therefore interesting hero, and things to say about betrayal, revenge, class, the corrupting effects of unearned rewards and the well-springs of character. So it might be worth a few hours of your time.
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Jan 2009
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling - Bloomsbury, 2007
* * * * *
Books are like savings accounts. The reader makes an investment in them and expects a return. The more time spent with them, the larger the payoff has to be, which makes the final book in a multi-volume series particularly important. If done well, the reader’s investment in the major characters is repaid with interest and they are left with a feeling of satisfaction that overcomes any niggling objections to plot developments, characterisation or writing style. If not, they are left feeling short-changed and disappointed.
J.K. Rowling has more to do this in this respect than most. The high number of books in her sequence and the ungainly lengths of the last three means that a reader who has followed the entire story will already have invested in over 2500 pages of Potterishness (that’s over twice the length of Lord of the Rings). So has she pulled it off? Somewhat to my surprise, I’d have to say that she has.
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May 2008
Storm Front - Jim Butcher - Orbit, 2005 / The Amulet of Samarkand - Jonathan Stroud - Corgi, 2004
* * * / * * * * *
I am going to review these two together because both feature magic and wizards in a contemporary setting, though otherwise they couldn't be more different. One is a straightforward grafting of magical imagery and rules onto the Philip Marlowe detective / thriller genre, competent but not very exciting. The other is a funny, dark, imaginative treat.
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