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Aug 2016
Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho - Pan Books, 2016 / Spiderlight – Adrian Tchaikovsky - Tor.com, 2016
* * * * / * * * * *
I appreciate the arts but have little time for most contemporary manifestations of them. The main reason for this (apart, of course, from the time wasted due to Sturgeon's law) is that art, music and dance appear to have stopped evolving, instead diversifying into myriad forms of individual self-expression. Art is no longer a conversation between the artist, their predecessors and contemporaries, but a monologue - "look how clever, original and talented I am!". As most artists are not particularly profound thinkers, what new insights they have tend to relate to the minutiae of the social milieu in which they live, and for me their effusions generally lack analytical interest and deep emotional meaning.

Fortunately, the same is not true of genre fiction. One can tell this by the fact that identifiable styles and trends exist, for example steampunk, grimdark and Scandinavian noir, which can be analysed and, more importantly, moved on from. As a result, modern genre fiction, even when it is not startlingly original - and the two books to be discussed here have deeply familiar settings and character types - can still be interesting and worthwhile in a way that the artworks considered for the Turner Prize, for example, are not.
Read more... )
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July 2016
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – James Hogg - Wordsworth Classics, 1997
* * *
This peculiar short novel was first published in 1824 but its use of unreliable narrators, ambiguous events and even a Stan Lee-like cameo by the author gives it a decidedly postmodern feel. It is also the earliest novel I have come across that engages deeply with the psychology of evil. Ultimately it is undermined by its heavy-handed religious message and a reliance on the Gothic, but it is an interesting experiment.
Read more... )
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May/Jun/Jul 2016
Last year I spent seven weeks travelling in Australasia with only an e-reader for company. Here is what I took with me.

The Hallowed Hunt - Lois McMaster Bujold - Tor, 2005 (Kindle edition)
* * *
This is the third novel set in Bujold's world of Chalion but you would hardly know it. None of the characters or locations from the previous books appear - the only connection is the five-fold religion of Father, Mother, Son, Daughter and Bastard, and even this is subsumed into an older belief system involving animal spirits.

The story is engaging enough - a lady in waiting (Ijada) kills a prince when he tries to rape her, and a lord called Ingrey with a wolf problem is sent to escort her to trial but finds himself trying to murder her instead. The reasons for this are to do with an exceptionally complicated magical plot that I must admit I could not really follow in the jetlagged state in which I read it. The ideas were nice but the characters were very much stock Bujold romantic leads and overall I found the thing unmemorable.
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May 2016
The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin – Picador, 1987
* * *
I read this book shortly before travelling in Australia last year, and it proved a good introduction to what would otherwise have been an alien culture. Not white Australians, of course - I am very familiar with them - but the original inhabitants. As someone from a cosmopolitan metropolis, the racial divide in the Northern Territories came as quite a shock. The poorest people - shabbily dressed, waiting for public transport, queuing outside government help centres, shopping in discount stores, listlessly begging outside nightclubs - invariably had black faces. Their demeanour was reserved and resigned, as if they were prisoners. Now I know that the history of the colonisation of the New World is terrible, but even so, after so many years and some progress on native rights, why do they seem so defeated?

The answer, which I would never have begun to understand without this book, is that in a sense, they have. There is a fundamental mismatch between aboriginal and western culture which can never be reconciled. For the aboriginal way of life is a nomadic, travelling existence, and the western one is not.
Read more... )
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Apr / May 2016
The Just City / The Philosopher Kings – Jo Walton – Corsair, 2015
* * * * / * * *
So this is something a bit unusual. It is a historical fantasy that eschews most of the motors of that genre such as dramatic violence and heavy use of magic. Instead, its largely female cast tries to engage the reader with philosophical discussion about freedom and justice. If this sounds awful, you will probably not enjoy it. Personally I thought it was an interesting and worthwhile experiment, even though it is based on the ideas of one of my least favourite writers.
Read more... )
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Apr 2016
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern - Vintage, 2012
* * * * *
I have always had a soft spot for stories of travelling entertainers. The irruption of the marvellous into the workaday world, which they represent, is a very powerful idea, because it is something we all want (the trope of the romantic meet-cute - the handsome prince who sweeps you off your feet, the princess so beautiful that when she looks at you, the entire world stops - is another very common manifestation of the same thing). As a child, the appearance of the leaflets advertising the arrival of the annual funfair was a source of great excitement. The reality, of course, was rather different. Fairs and circuses are intensely physical places, grimy, noisy and smelly, and I wandered round them in a permanent state of mild disappointment that they were not as extraordinary as I had imagined.

Writers who set their stories in such an environment have a challenge to avoid engendering a similar feeling in the reader. How to keep the location sufficiently real that it doesn't feel twee or whimsical, while still retaining a sense of wonder and possibility? It's a difficult balance to pull off, and few writers have achieved it. One such is Ray Bradbury's fabulous Something Wicked This Way Comes, which uses the darkness and wildness of autumn and hallowe'en to give his carnival a fantastical edge. The Night Circus is more derivative, but that is about the only thing I can say against it.
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Mar 2016
The Book of Legendary Lands - Umberto Eco, tr. Alastair McEwen - MacLehose Press, 2015
* *
A disappointment, this. I got it because it looked pretty and I thought that Eco would have some interesting things to say about worldbuilding and its semiotic meanings. Unfortunately, he doesn't, really, contenting himself with potted histories of legendary locations such as Camelot, Thule and Atlantis which were clearly culled from his research for Foucault's Pendulum. The copious pictures are beautiful, but I got the impression that this was meant to be a coffee-table book rather than a serious work of literature.
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Feb 2016
The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith - Sphere, 2015
* * * *
Now I know I have complained about books featuring authors and publishers in the past, but I am going to give this one a pass, largely because they are victims or possible perps rather than protagonists. This is a proper whodunit with an intriguing set up, plausible suspects and proper clues. And unlike The Cuckoo's Calling, it doesn't make a mess of the ending.
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Jan 2016
The Turnip Princess - Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, tr. Erika Eichenseer - Penguin Books, 2015

* * *
Here is an interesting thing: a collection of fairy tales recorded in the early nineteenth century and only recently rediscovered in a municipal archive in Regensberg. They were collected by von Schönwerth a couple of hundred miles away from the area around Marburg where the Brothers Grimm worked. It is therefore hardly surprising that some of the tales seem distinctly familiar - Ashfeathers, for example, is essentially Cinderella dialled down a social notch, with an innkeeper father, a nobleman lover rather than a prince, a dwarf in place of the fairy godmother and dressing up for church replacing going to the ball. Many of the other stories are variations on the old theme of a prince or princess transformed by a spell, but it is interesting to see the imaginative inventiveness of the whimsical details that the different tellers came up with. The title story, for example, concerns a prince who more-or-less inadvertently breaks a curse by sticking a blackthorn branch into a turnip in a field.
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Jan 2016
You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - Felicia Day - Sphere, 2015
* * * *
I embrace the label of geek but take slight offence at being called a nerd, which is odd because I am both. The former has positive connotations - technological know-how, enthusiasm, creativity. The latter implies an introverted oddball lacking in some fundamental human qualities. The social implications are strong. Geeks are welcomed, lionised, their obsessions indulged and even praised. Nerds are the lonely social misfits satirised in sitcoms like The IT Crowd and early episodes of the The Big Bang Theory (in that show the main characters - Sheldon aside - metamorphosed very quickly into geeks). Felicia Day has been described as "queen of the geeks", but as soon becomes clear, she is much more nerdy than that. And what makes this book delightful and more interesting than your run-of-the-mill celebrity autobiography is that she both knows it and celebrates it.
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I have got horribly behind, so here are some capsule reviews of the remaining books from last year.

The Slaves' Story
July 2015
Enemies at Home - Lindsey Davis - Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

* * * *
This is the second of Davis' Flavia Albia series and it maintains the standard of the first. Flavia's female status is put to good use as she investigates a domestic double murder of a newlywed couple. Why didn't their slaves save them? Could one of them have been responsible? Or was a third party involved? The storyline allows Davis to investigate, for the first time, the status of slaves in ancient Rome and their complicated relationships with their masters. Long-time readers will be pleased to see the return of a couple of characters from the Falco series and relationships from the first book are pleasingly developed. It is a shame that the whodunit is somewhat unsatisfying - the perpetrator(s) can't, I think, be worked out in advance - but in all other respects this is a very satisfying novel.

The Second Stringer
Sep 2015
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen, 2012 (Kindle edition)

* * *
Few authors of long-running series can successfully resist the lure of marriage and children for their protagonist, which is fine but does tend to mark the end of their usefulness as a carrier of story once the obvious "partner/offspring in peril" plot has been done. Bujold, thank goodness, has never descended to that level with Miles Vorkosigan, but as his two most recent outings have shown, family responsibilities have diminished the dramatic range of the stories that can be told. What to do? Well, one well-tested solution is to bring up a second stringer, and Ivan Vorpatril, Miles' laid-back cousin, is a very suitable choice. But sadly, he simply isn't as interesting as Miles and nor is his love interest up to Ekaterin's standard. It’s still a fun romp - Bujold is incapable of writing a dull book - but it does nothing new.


Apples and Yokels
Sep 2015
The Wine of Angels - Phil Rickman - Corvus, 2011 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
Liked this - a thriller/murder investigation set in deepest Herefordshire with main characters Merrily Watkins, an engaging and realistically-written Church of England vicar, her rebellious teenage daughter Jane, and a musician-songwriter called Lol. Cider apples, suspicious yokels and an LGBT-themed historical back-story all feature. I'm surprised that there hasn't been a televisual adaptation.

Delaney's Successor
Nov 2015
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps - Kai Ashante Wilson - Tor, 2015 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This short novel reads so much like Dhalgren or Tales of Neveryon that I wondered whether it was written by Samuel Delaney himself under a pseudonym. The story is very simple, concerning a merchant caravan that must travel through a magically dangerous area known as the Wildeeps, the wizard and the captain who protect it, and the relationship between them. What makes it interesting is the variety of writing styles: most strikingly African-American demotic in the speech of the caravan guards, but also the lush descriptive rhythms of epic fantasy and the dry jargon of science fiction. As a package it shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does. Ultimately, it is styles over substance - the main plot is hardly original, and the resolution of the romance is disappointingly predictable - but I enjoyed the ride.

Ritual Maths
Dec 2015
The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross - Hachette Digital, 2004 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This is an early Stross, written when he still worked in IT, and to a certain extent it shows. But it’s also the book of his that I have enjoyed the most. It is based on an engaging idea obviously inspired by a well-known Cthulhu Mythos tale; that newly discovered mathematical algorithms could act as summoning rituals allowing Nameless Horrors into our universe. Which of course means that mathematics professors, physicists and other numerically literate types are particularly dangerous people. Needless to say, a secret government department - the Laundry - has been created for the sole purpose of catching such mavericks and preventing apocalypse. Our hero, Bob Howard, is a geek who has accidentally found himself working for the Laundry, and becomes a reluctant operative facing powerful horrors from beyond space and time and the no less terrifying bureaucracy of a public sector organisation. There are two stories: the first builds to a surprisingly intense climax in an interesting location, and the second, involving a danger from an aspect of modern life, is as amusing as it is ridiculous. I appreciated both the satire and the computer nerd hero, though it's a pity that the women in both stories are sassy but otherwise agentless.

One Hundred Words for Rain
Dec 2015
Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane - Hamish Hamilton, 2015

* *
Eskimoes may or may not have fifty words for snow, but British English definitely has at least one hundred words for rain. I know this because I counted the helpful list of them in this book, one of several glossaries of terms for describing the natural world that have largely fallen out of use. My personal favourites were dimpsey, a Cornish word for low cloud with fine drizzle, and plothering, heavy rain in Leicestershire.

Macfarlane is trying to demonstrate that our restricted vocabulary reflects and perhaps causes the lack of respect for and interest in the natural world that is characteristic of urban dwellers, a point made well in the introduction but sadly not in the rest of the book, which consists of uninteresting portraits of nature writers, most of whom were unknown to me (with one or two exceptions) and are likely to remain so.
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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.
Read more... )
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Nov 2015
The Last Word - Hanif Kureishi - Faber & Faber, 2015

*
This book is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with so much of British literary fiction. It is set in a narrow middle-class social milieu that ignores the vast majority of the country, has main characters who are both smug and utterly unlikeable, thinks it's funny when it's not, is obsessed with class and sex but has nothing new to say about them, and has a plot that is tedious in its predictability. About the one thing to be said in its favour is that there is no post-modern self-referentiality. Though since one of the main characters is a much-lauded but fading mixed-race writer, even that may not be entirely true.
Read more... )
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Oct 2015
The Goblin Emperor - Katherine Addison - Tor, 2014 (Kindle edition)

* * *
This book has popped up on a number of award lists but has only won one of them. I can understand why. Its world-building is detailed and it features an unusually decent and therefore sympathetic protagonist (grimdark this is not). However, a number of the flaws of modern fantasies - an obsession with first-person viewpoint and vagueness about religion, history and geography - combine with some cloth-eared decisions about style to make this more of a chore to read than it should be.
Read more... )
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Sep 2015
Meet Me in Atlantis - Mark Adams - Text Publishing Company, 2015

* * *
This is a travelogue in the style of Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux in which a journalist meets various eccentric people who have theories about the location of Atlantis. Unlike them, however, I do not think it is intended to be funny, and I certainly didn't find it so. Indeed, there is an earnestness to the overall endeavour that made it a sometimes tedious read for an incorrigible skeptic like me. For the overwhelming view of scholars is that Atlantis is a myth invented by that wily old writer Plato to express his political and philosophical views, and nothing in this book significantly contradicts that.
Read more... )
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Sep 2015
The Voyages of Captain Cook - ed. Ernest Rhys - Wordsworth, 1999

* *
On a trip a couple of years ago, one of my fellow travellers introduced me to the term othering to describe the tendency of humans to categorise other humans as "us" or "them" based on cultural, racial, political, gender or sexual criteria. While disliking the neologism, I could see that it was better than the intuitive but somewhat racist word "tribalism" that I would have used for the same concept. Othering is a sadly common human trait, and its manifestation in the modern world is particularly noticeable in the political arguments over migration that are ongoing at the time of writing. But it is nothing new, as this book makes depressingly clear.
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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.
Read more... )
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July 2015
The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro - Faber & Faber, 2015

* * *
Despite not being a great fan of his previous work, I put Ishiguro's latest on my wishlist because I was intrigued by its premise. As someone who profoundly believes that memory is the key to being human, a novel about a land afflicted by a mist of forgetfulness was an intriguing proposition. I was somewhat concerned about its reported use of fantastic elements, given Ishiguro's ineptitude in providing the necessary historical and sociological underpinnings for the SF world of Never Let Me Go, but fantasy is in many respects a tougher genre to get wrong; after all, implausible or inconsistent plotting can always be waved away with a magical wand, and hackneyed tropes such as dragons, elves or vampires can be justified by giving them new allegorical meanings. Alas, despite its exploration of an interesting moral dilemma, The Buried Giant does not really work as a novel. And the reasons why are not dissimilar to those that flaw Never Let Me Go
.
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June 2015
Howards End - E.M. Forster - Penguin, 2012
* * *
"Only connect!" is this novel's most famous line, though that wasn't the message that I took away from it. The phrase appears in a passage which describes the intention of the protagonist Margaret, a woman with a strong cultural and spiritual inner life, to persuade her materialistic and emotionally repressed fiancé Henry to open up to the richness of the world around him. She fails, and similarly for me the novel doesn't quite succeed, perhaps because Forster is a little too like Henry himself.
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May 2015
Confronting the Classics - Mary Beard - Profile, 2014

* * *
This is a fix-up of various reviews that Beard has written for publications such as The London Review of Books and is intended to show how Classics is still a lively and relevant subject today. To my mind it doesn't quite succeed, and the reason is its format.

Yes, yes, I know - for a book review to criticise a book for being a set of book reviews may seem like the height of hypocrisy, particularly coming from someone who doesn't do much original writing himself. But that's the point. The reason I write book reviews is that I am lazy. Criticising others is simple; coming up with something worth criticising much harder. And I think that Beard can to a certain extent be accused of taking the easy way out here. Her reviews are interesting and entertaining reads. But the scattergun approach imposed by the variety of topics that they cover reveals a common weakness about Classics as a whole that she does not really address.
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