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February 11, 2007

Getting rid of books?

The time has come, I am forced to admit, to get rid of some of my books. I was looking around my flat the other day, thinking that I should really get around to bringing up the last few bits and pieces of my stuff, when it occurred to me that there was no practical way I could possibly fit in all my books.

Having spent the last 5 years moving round the country between various student lodgings I’ve been storing all my books at the house of my long suffering grandmother, which is beginning to resemble a library. So the last time I went down to visit her, I decided to try and work out which books I actually wanted to keep, and which could be safely consigned to a better home.

Now most people would simply gather piecemeal all the books they didn’t want, put them in boxes, and take them off to a second hand bookshop. But I decided to proceed more systematically. Now a while ago I discovered a rather curious site that allows you to catalogue books and use them to generate recommendations and so on. Another of those sites that will probably be totally pointless to the vast bulk of the population, and ridiculously addictive to a tiny minority…

Anyway, I thought it would be quite nice to keep a record of books, even if I did decide to get rid of them, and it also seemed like an easy way to tag books for disposal, without the need to keep running up and down the country. That I way, I’d be able to work out a list, print it out, and post it to the long suffering grandmother, who could dispose of the books whenever she had time. Unfortunately this required manual entry of either title/author data or ISBNs. So I spent the best part of a day laboriously working my way along shelves, entering numbers into the computer. Thanks to the wonders of librarything, the results are actually viewable online…

For the first time, I became aware that I have literally hundreds of mediocre fantasy novels. I have scores of books that I have not the slightest intention of ever reading again, old course books, books that I bought on impulse because they were on special offer, random non-fiction books that caught my eye in second hand bookshops, and an entire collection of Teach Yourself language books for which the only justification is that I once used them in an essay on linguistics. So really, the question is not “which books should I get rid of?”, but “which books are worth keeping?”.

So which books are worth keeping? Well, reference books, for a start, but really, in the age of the internet, the only reference book I regularly use is a good dictionary. And a road atlas every now and then. The rest can pretty much go. But can I really bring myself to get rid of a perfectly good dictionary of languages? A guide to English usage? One of those delightful Victorian books that profess to contain information on just about everything? Who’s who in British history?

What are the books that everyone should have? Hmmm… A Complete Works of Shakespeare, a Bible? A Koran? Where do we stop? I’ve got a Bhagavad-Gita, a Book of Mormon I stole from a hotel room, one of those books the Jehovah’s Witnesses give out to anyone who talks to them for more than a minute, a couple of books of sayings of the Dalai Lama – one of which is in Italian. Oh, and the Tao Te Chi. Rather suspicious for an avowed atheist.

Fiction should be pretty easy – if a)I didn’t like the book, and / or b) I’m unlikely ever to read it again, it should go. But what about classics that I might not like now, but might appreciate in my dotage? What about books I enjoyed as a child? Should I keep them for sentimental reasons? What happens if it’s a series and I liked some and not others? Should I keep the series together?

Non-fiction is even worse. Should I get rid of all books I’m not likely to read again, no matter how interesting they were? What about old textbooks – can I really bring myself to just throw out all those books I spent hours slaving over? Coffee table books – so I don’t actually have a coffee table at the moment, but suppose I get one? What would I do then? And should I keep a smattering of erudite tomes around to look impressive?

Then there’re all the books I haven’t actually got around to reading – am I likely to read them or not? How am I to judge? Why the hell did I buy them in the first place? Why do I have an English / Norwegian dictionary?

I have to confess, before I put them in the database, I had long since forgotten most of these books, but now I’ve dug them all up again, they suddenly seem indispensable. I may be here some time….

September 30, 2006

The God Delusion

4 out of 5 stars

Well, I know I decided to stop writing book reviews, but I decided to make an exception for this book…

Following up on his recent TV programme The Root of All Evil, Dawkins’s latest book mounts an attack on religion, from just about every angle he can find. ‘Although at times he veers dangerously close to ranting, for the most part The God Delusion is well argued and thorough.

Dawkins largely limits himself to the Abramaic (Abrahamaic?) religions, and it would have been nice to have little more space given to anthropological considerations of just why people believe. Those are, however, covered extremely well by Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, which I’d reccomend to anyone interested.

I enjoyed this book, but was already familiar with most of the arguements used both for and against religion, and have always been a staunch atheist, so to a large extent he was preaching to the choir. I’d be extremely interested to know whether anyone with any degree of religious beliefs has read this book, and if so, what they made of it. I’m quite tempted to buy some more copies and give them to religious people I know, but that might be taken as an insult, so I won’t!

August 07, 2006

Reading Roundup

Not rated

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…]

July 18, 2006

Bright Young Things from Gollancz: 3/3

5 out of 5 stars

And here we are, with the third and final new author from Gollancz. This book comes plastered with favourable comments from George R. R. Martin, Richard Morgan, and Hal Duncan, no less, and for once it lives up to them. Lynch has delivered a excellent book, written in an engaging style, with a fine cast of characters.

Locke Lamora is the leader of a gang of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards who pass the time in intricate plans to rob the nobles of the city of Camorr, a Venice ten times more impressive than the orignal. The careful balance between the underworld and the nobles is threatened by new faces, and Lamora is caught up in a frantic battle to keep on top of a growing web of plots and nefarious doings.

For a first novel Lynch has delivered a remarkably well polished work. The style is nicely suited to the work, not too serious, but still capable of packing a punch. There were one or two passages that made me laugh out loud, but this book is clever, rather than slapstick. Characters are well rounded, albeit in the "lovable rogue" mould. Lynch is not afraid to kill them off, either, and twists and turns in plot took me by surprise. There's barely a wasted moment in the book, and although the interspaced flashbacks to Locke's earlier life sometimes feel a little clumsy, the pace easily carried me through 300 pages in one sitting.

This is not great literature, but it's highly entertaining, and reasonably original, at least for a fantasy novel. I just hope Lynch manages to maintain the tone for the rest of the series, a predicted 7 books. I'm already looking forward to the second. Five stars.

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

3 out of 5 stars

This book is actually the sixth in a series, but can easily be read out of sequence. It features Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's foremost lady detective, investigating a linked series of mysteries. A strange intruder in her house, her huband's apprentice involved with a married worman, and a wrongly imprisoned pharmacist all vie for attention against a backdrop of African domesticity.

This is a very nice book, something you could safely reccomend to your maiden aunt. Everyone is very polite, no blood is shed, and everything ends happily. It makes for a pleasant, undemanding, read. This is not great literature, but it whiles away a lazy afternoon. Three stars.

Turkish Gambit

4 out of 5 stars

This is Akunin's second book featuring Erast Fandorin, his 19th century sleuth, and sees him caught up in a war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Varya is a young girl who finds her fiance accused of espionage, and Fandorin seems her only hope. But he is soon caught up in a web of politics and war, and Varya is pursued by amorous foreign correspondants.

This is another fascinating and entertaining read from Akunin. Fandorin is as entertaining as ever, as clever as Poirot, but somehow more human. Minor characters are fleshed out, the plot weaves in twists and turns that keep the reader gripped. This is perhaps not quite up the standard of Fandorin's adventures in mruder on the leviathan but well worth reading. Four stars.

July 17, 2006

Bright Young Things from Gollancz: 2/3

2 out of 5 stars

Well, here we are with the second of the highly rated new authors, Tom Lloyd with The Stormcaller. It's a young–hero–coming–of–age book that tries to do something new. It nearly succeeds.

The main man: Isak, a young "white eye", a mutant gifted with superior strength, vitality, and lifespan; at the price of a violent, brutal nature that he must learn to control. The book's off to a swift start as he becomes the chosen heir of Lord Bahl, also a white eye, and has to quickly establish his place and learn to understand the political intrigues that surround his new position. And so it goes, with Isak quickly thrust into battle against "elves".

I put the quote marks in because Lloyd's elves aren't the standard Tolkienesque type. They're more brutal savages than fey bards. Cheryl Morgan in her review in Emerald City compares this book to Moorcock, and to me it reads like an attempt to fuse the dark glamour of Moorcock's world with the complexity of Steven Erikson. The Stormcaller is full of dark gods, dark heroes, complex series of races, Magical Weapons of Great Import, ancient heroes, and enough general paraphernalia for half a dozen Dungeons and Dragons games. Oh, and a dragon. And some Ancient Prophecies, too.

Unfortunately, where Llyod falls down is on the characterisation. Isak is too much the brutal killer to fit into the mould of farmboy–turned–hero so beloved of many, but too sympathetic and soft to fit the harsh world Lloyd puts him in. The book has to stand or fall on Isak alone, none of the other characters are more than bit players, and Isak just isn't a strong enough character. Althoug the (rather good) ending handles the whole prophecy issue quite well, this book reads too much like Eddings with a bit more gore.

The writing is unexceptional, and really this book just fails to stand out. I'd like to give it more, but I don't feel it deserves more than 2 stars.

July 15, 2006

A ramble through the late 17th century

3 out of 5 stars

So, more from our man Stephenson?

That's right, Quicksilver book one of his three volume Baroque Cycle. A trilogy that has picked up more than its fair share of ridiculously overblown rave reviews, I'll have you know.

This isn't a book; it's a place to more into and raise a family… You'd better start reading now.

(Daily Telegraph quote on the back cover)

What's it about, then?

Well, essentially, it's an almost–historical novel set in the late 17th century after the Restoration of Charles II, featuring the exploits of fictional characters against a historical backdrop. The main character is Daniel Waterhouse, who as a young man went to Cambridge with Newton, and later became secretary of the Royal Society. This (fictional) character moves in the sort of circles that allow him to comment on the (historical) personages of the day.

… I have met the Duke of Monmouth, I have roomed with the Duke of Monmouth, I have been vomited on by the Duke of Monmouth, and I am telling you that the Duke of Monmouth is no Charles II! To say nothing of Oliver Cromwell.

So, why the late 17th century?

A time of changes! A time of massive political upheavel, great scientific breakthroughs, a time that laid the foundations of the modern era. Or that's the impression I'm left with, anyway, thanks to Stephenson's descriptions. His detailing the experiments of the Royal Society are particularly effective…

Meanwhile, Hooke and Wilkins connected the head's wind–pope to a large set of fireplace–bellows, so theat they could blow air through his voice–box. Daniel was detailed to saw off the top of the skull and get rid of the brains so that he could reach in through the back and get hold of the soft palate, tonge and other meaty bits responsible for making sounds. With Daniel thus acting as sort of meat pupperteer, and Hooke manipulating the lips and nostrils, and Wilkins plying the bellows, they were able to make the head speak…

But is the history convincing?

Well, on the whole, yes. Newton is a particularly fascinating character, and Stephenson does a good job both of highlighting the truely fundamental nature of his research–

The notion that the Sun exerted some centripetal force on the planets was now becoming pretty well accepted, but by asking for data on the interactions of moon and sea, and of Jupiter and Saturn, Isaac was as much as saying that these were all of a piece, that everything attracted everything – that the influences on (say) Saturn of the Sun, or Jupiter, and of Tital (the moon of Saturn that Huygens had discovered) were different only insofar as they came from different directions and had different magnitudes. Like the diverse goods piled up in some Amsterdam merchant's warehouse, they might come from many places and have different values, but in the end all that mattered was how much gold they could fetch on the Damplatz.

– as well as painting a vivid picture of his personality, complete with idiosyncracies –

'The inner workins of gravity, you seem to be saying, are beyond the grasp, or even the reach, of Natural Philosophy. To what should we appeal, then? Metaphysicians? Theologians? Sorcerers?'
'They are all the same to me,' Isaac said, 'and I am one.'

At times, perhaps because Stephenson's books seem to be marketed in the SF section, rather than under historical fiction, he gets away with liberties that would bring more academic critics down on his head….

Finding himself alone on a boat–flecked mudflat, and happening on a tavern, he entered it. The only thing he sought in that place was a pint, and maybe a banger. In addition to which, he found James (by the Grace of God King of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the occasional odd bit of France) Stuart being beaten up by a couple of drunken English fishermen. It was just the sort of grave indignity absolute monarchs tried at all costs to avoid.

But it's a 900 page book, right? So what else is it about?

Well, another major character is Jack, a street urchin turned loveable rogue, wandering through Europe, allowing Stephenson to describe the sights.

Vienna was a small town dwarfed by its own defenses, in turn engulfed by a larger Turkish city only a few months old. The town itself was, then, the smallest part of what he saw, but it was to the rest as a chalice to a cathedral. Even from miles off he could see it was a miserable place – actualy streets were visible nowhere, just the red tile roofs of long skinny buildings heaped up six and seven stories, wending black crevices between them indicating streets, which he could tell would be sunless trenches, thick with hurtling shit and echoing voices. He could see the foaming stain of the city spreading across the adjacent canal and, further downstream, into the Danube itself, and from its color he could almost guess that there was a major flux epidemic underway – as indeed there was in the Turkish camp.

Tied into these descriptions is an undertone of political discontent. Jack is no political idealist, but embedded in his comentary is a savage critique of the feudalism that would shortly be coming to an end.

It probably had not even occurred to that Winged Hussar that Jack would know how to ride. In his part of the world, a serf could no more ride on horseback than he could speak Latin or dance a minuet. And disobeying the command of an armed lord was even less likely than riding around on a horse.
But Jack was not Polish scum of the earth, barefoot and chained to the land, or even French scum of the earth, in wooden clogs and in thrall to the priest and the tax farmer, but English scum of the earth in good boots, equipped with certain God–given rights that were (as rumor had it) written down in a Charter somewhere, and armed with a loaded gun.

But what's the actual book about? What happens?

Well, good question. What with these two characters, and the even more entertaining Liza and their intertied adventures, it's hard to tell whether there's no plot at all, or just so many intricate sub plots that will all be tied together in the subsequent books. In a 900 page book, digressions are inevitable, but at times Quicksilver read like 80% digression to 20% narrative. In addition, Stephenson inserts chronologically later episodes of Waterhouse's later adventures into the main narrative, for no good reason. Only the excellence of Stephenson's prose saves it from falling into a literary morass.

Final rating?

It's not easy. It'd have to be three stars.

Song of Kali

2 out of 5 stars

Dan Simmons is perhaps better known for his science fiction, particularly his Hyperion saga, but this is one of his earlier works, crossing the fantasy / horror boundary. Unlike his somewhat unwieldy SF works, it's tightly written and compelling to read. Unfortunately, in tone it perhaps tries a little too hard for suspense and moves into the realm of melodrama.

Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. Before Calcutta I would have laughed at such an idea. Before Calcutta I did not believe in evil – certainly not as a force separate from the actions of men. Before Calcutta I was a fool.

Written in 1985, it also seems to me to play to strongly on the idea of India as some strange exotic & otherworldly place, to succeed today. So not really a Fantasy Masterwork, as it claims to be. But not totally bad, the pacing is good, racing through to a climatic ending. Two stars.

dance dance dance

3 out of 5 stars
I should probably admit at the start that I really didn't understand this book. My only other experience with Murakami was Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and that, or so I remember, was superficially much stranger, and yet seemed at the end to make sense. Dance Dance Dance, on the other hand, moves from a superficially simple story of a freelance writer returning to a hotel to find a lost love, into realms far more mysterious. This is not a book for everyone, indeed it probably wasn't really a book for me, but intriguing characters and artful prose (skillfully translated from the original japanese) made it an pleasurable read. Three stars, as the fourth went right over my head.

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