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August 07, 2006

Reading Roundup

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Reading Roundup

Being somewhat busy for the last couple of weeks, I haven't had a chance to post anything, particularly not reviews the last load of books I've read. However, rather than post individual review, I've decided to take a different approach. Looking back, it seems that with most of the books I've reviewed, I really haven't had anything particularly interesting to say. Particularly not for the mediocre fantasy novels I devour by the ton. In addition, during the period I've been posting reviews, I've accounted for more than half of the book reviews posted on the whole Warwick Blogs network. Which seems a little excessive, and probably a bit boring for anyone who actually reads them. (Incidentally, I have no idea whether anyone actually reads what I write about any of these books – but that is after all the whole point of blogs…)

So instead I'll post a roundup every week or so, in which as well as giving a star rating and a few comments I'll try and make some sort of general summary of what I've learnt. This way anyone who reads my blog but is sick of the bloody book reviews can skip over it in one go for the occasional post of interest. Unfortunately it's a bit hard this time, as I've left it two weeks and I'm faced with quite a selection:

Robert Harris – Pompeii
Peter Barry – Beginning Theory
Tad Williams – Tailchaser's Song
Terrance Dicks – Timewyrm: Exodus
Mark Thomas – As used on the famous Nelson Mandela
Jonathan Carroll – The Wooden Sea
Tim Powers – The Annubis Gates
Martin Meredith – The State of Africa
Benoit B. Madelbrot and Richard L. Hudson – The (Mis)behaviour of Markets
Naomi Novik – Temeraire: Throne of Jade

So first let's pick out the obvious theme: history.

Now The State of Africa is a "pop" history of Africa since independence, with particular attention given to the generally dismal record of African leaders. (It occured to me that this book might well stir up criticism from the sort of critics who take western writers' criticising anything African as Cultural Imperialism At Work, but I didn't take it that way at all.) This is not a particularly cheerful book. In fact, Meredith dwells for so long on the suffering caused by various dictators that the book degenerates into something of a hard slog. His habbit of jumping from country to country and leader to leader means that I at least soon lost track of just who was who. What would have been particularly helpful would have been a list of countries with chronologies of leaders. But that's nitpicking what is a fascinating and comprehensive history of modern Africa. There's not a country ignored, and although some receive scant attention – the relatively successful Botswana rates about five pages, for example – Meredith strikes a good balance between historical narrative and specific anecdotes. This really is a book that should be read by anyone interested in Africa, as even if the details don't necessarily sink in, it gives an excellent overview of the tumultuous years since independence. I give it 4 stars, very nearly 5.

From a history book, we move to Pomeii, a historical novel set in the time of the famous eruption. Unfortunately it doesn't measure up to the standards set by Harris in his other books. It's not that it's bad, just unexceptional, and coming from Harris, this is a disappointment. It's easily readable, but the plot, concerning a young engineer sent to maintain the acquaduct, is predictable; the largest portion of the book is given to build up to a climax already known by the reader; and the characters aren't amazing either. Actually that's not entirely true, I did like the portrayal of the Plinys , the Plinies , the Elder and Younger Pliny. Coming from anyone else, this would maybe, maybe, get three stars, but I know Harris can do much better. Two stars.

Moving from history to alternate history, we have Temeraire: Throne of Jade, the second in a trilogy of books set in Napoleonic Europe. With dragons. In book one, we learnt how the eponymous Chinese Dragon Temeraire was captured as an egg from the French and turned out to be very important indeed, and in this book, the Chinese want him back. So Temeraire and his handler, the impecably polite Captain Laurance, travel to China to plead the case for Britain keeping him. The result: (reasonably well thought out, if unoriginal) political machinations and (lovingly described) sea battles galore. This is not great literature, but it's highly readable, mainly because Novik uses a style I'm at a loss to describe, but that calls to mind the tone used by one's elderly maiden aunt to address the town council. She also does a good job with the dragons, thinking through the various social and political effects. I'll be a bit generous and give it three stars.

Now, I will add that Temeraire requires a rather interesting suspension of disbelief. I'm not talking about the dragons themselves, it goes without saying that they require a suspension of disbelief, but this is fiction, after all. And to a certain extent they can be logically posited in a way that the Emperor Napoleon cannot. To refer to an essay the title and location of which I've long since forgotten, positing a point of departure in history from our current timeline logically requries every event that takes place in the temporally downstream light cone of the point of departure to be affected by said change. In other words, if one were to hypothesise that, say, a child of Queen Anne survived her and inherrited the throne, everyone in Britain, and to a certain extent the rest of the world, would be affected to the point where two centuries hence, even if the social structures remained comparable to our own (and this is obviously highly debateable), the individuals could not possibly be the same. In other words, to hypothesise a world with dragons is reasonable (if one comes up with a tenuous expanation of how they can be so big heavy and yet fly), and hence SF alternate history (Harry Harrison does something fairly similar in West of Eden, in which dinosaurs survive (with appropriate evolutionary changes)) but to posit a world with dragons, hence a point of departure, what, millenia into the past, which contains the Emperor Napoleon fighting the very same Battle of Trafalgar, but with dragons, is just, well, silly. So this is one of the very few fantasy novels I've read that is not merely impossible, but intrinsically logically impossible.

It's still a good read, though.

From alternate history, three books about time travel: Timewrym: Exodus is a Doctor Who New Adventure, ie a story writen for a novel, not a novelised tv script. It's the second book in a linked series of stories, and the reason I bought it is because I found it in a charity shop and mistook it for the rarer, and more valuable, fourth book. It reads like a particularly good Target novelisation (not that anyone reading this will have read a Target novelisations, but hey), but Terrance Dicks, as always, aims for easy mediocrity, rather than attempting anything ambitious. So we see the (seventh) Doctor and Ace thrawt at attempt by an Alien Entity to take over Adolf Hitler and win the second world war for the Axis. Fun. Two stars.

Slightly more intellectual is The Anubis Gates, where a 20th century Coleridge expert finds himself in the middle of the eighteenth century, caught between a time travelling tycoon and a bunch of Egyptian sorcerors. I said slightly more intellectual. Powers writes an extremely entertaining tale, if one is prepared to overlook the more implausible plot twists. Varying from ridiculously predictable to totally unexpected the many twists and surprises kept me gripped, and this is a book that really does deserve every page it uses, which makes for a nice change in fiction. I liked it, anyway. Four stars.

More intellectually pretentious is The Wooden Sea, in which the protagonist finds himself caught up in a plot involving his younger self, a dog that won't stay burried, and mysterious higher entities. Unfortunately it soon degenerates into incoherence. God only knows what the author was getting at. Two stars.

Well, that's the easy link done. The other three books resist easy classification, but there's not much to say about them anyway. Beginning theory is a very readable textbook introduction to literary theory (four stars), As used on the famous Nelson Mandela is a mildly amusing exposť of the arms trade (three stars), and The (Mis)behaviour of Markets is an attempt by Mandelbrot (as in the set) to apply chaos theory to financial markets (four stars).

Acually, I will say a bit about the last two. As used on the famous Nelson Mandela will either be enormously popular or sink without a trace, so I should probably write something about it, but it really didn't make that much of an impact. Maybe I'm just too cynical to be shocked of the dodgy politics and legalities of the arms trade. And for a book by a commedian, it's not that funny. Give me Mark Steel's history of the French Revolution, any day.

The (Mis)behaviour of Markets, on the other hand, is fascinating, but sadly likely to appeal only to those interested in both chaos theory and finance, a group that, in my experience, includes only myself. And I'm not that interested in financial markets. I would, however, reccomend it to the non-scientist who enjoyed James Gleick's Chaos – as there are lamentably so few books on chaos theory for the non mathematically knowledgable reader.

[Good grief. The number of tags I'll have to apply to this post is ridiculous. Maybe this isn't such a good idea…]

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