All 24 entries tagged Books

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July 12, 2006

Peter Rabbit!! In Hieroglyphs!!!!!

5 out of 5 stars

OK, so this is not a particularly worthwhile book, and I can't say as I actually read it all the way through, but it's Peter Rabbit, in HIEROGLYPHS! Of course I had to buy it.

In amoungst the translated (full) text, are scholarly footnotes, where the translators explain various points:

The wheel was a relatively recent introduction in the ancient Egypt of the Middle kingdom and, so far as we are aware, was used only on chariots. There is no evidence of the existence of wheelbarrows. So we resorted to the well known word for sledge.

I can really think of no good reason to reccommend this book to anyone, but what the hell, five stars.

bridge of birds

4 out of 5 stars

This is a lovely little book, a story set in a mythical china, where yong Number Ten Ox is sent out from his village to find a cure for a mysterious plague that has afflicted the children. Together with a wily old sage Li Kao, who has a slight flaw in his character, he goes on a quest for the mysterious ginseng root.

Although at first their adventures may seem a little repetitive, as they encounter a series of villains on their quest, towards the end all is tied together into a wider story. This is primarily a children's book, but hey, it kept me entertained for a couple of hours!

July 03, 2006

Bright Young Things from Gollancz: 1/3

3 out of 5 stars

Curiously enough I find myself with three new fantasy books by three new authors this month. All published by Victor Gollancz publishers, and all praised to varying degrees by reviewers – at least in the SF/ Fantasy world, the mainstream press, as always, ignores this sort of thing. Three new authors, three chances to either churn out yet another second rate cardboard cutout epic, or, with any luck, to make a mark in the fantasy world with something superior.

We begin with Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, book one of The First Law (No indications yet as to how long the series will be). Praised on the cover as "upredictable, compelling, wickedly funny, and packed with unforgettable characters, The Blade Itself is noir fantasy with a real cutting edge." In fact it's a mildly amusing, competantly written start to what looks to be an Epic Quest. This book concerns itself almost entirely with set up for the rest of the series, bringing together a band of Mismatched Heroes, ready to Save The World from a Dire Threat. Well, there's a bit more to it than that, but not much.

Our Heroes are introduced and they make for an unexceptional bunch. Logen Ninefingers is the barbarian tiring of senseless slaughter, Bayaz the Magus is the suitably enigmatic wizard, Malacus Quai is his inept apprentice, Jezal dan Luthar is the young arrogant nobleman who will no doubt mature by the end of the series. Mild interest with Ferro Maljinn the Young Angry Woman, but the only really unique character in the book is Sand dan Glokta, a crippled Inquisitor–come–torturer with a heart of gold.

It'll be interesting to see what Abercrombie does with his characters in successive books, becuase in this one, he doesn't do much. What makes a book almost entirely devoted to setting the scene bareable is the tone and style of the book.

A note on style. There seem to me to be no other genres where bad writing is so tolerated as Fantasy. This is not to say that good writing doesn't exist, of course, merely that much of what is sold, read, and, more irritatingly, publicised, is literary tripe.

Different styles in fantasy obviously exist, but when one rules out the more "high" fantasy (i.e. Tolkien, Eddison, Wolfe, etc, and their pale immitators), the more "realistic" fantasy (yes, I know that's probably a contradiction) ranges from the embarrassingly bad (Robert Newcomb), through the merely very bad (Terry Goodkind), up to the ok (Robert Jordan), to the fairly good (George R. R. Martin), to the very good (Scott Bakker), but rarely do we see any differentiation among writing style and tone. It's difficult to explain this, probably because I lack the literary vocabulary, but The Blade Itself, while not being exceptionally good, had something extra in the author's voice that told of a different approach to the genre.

Oh, I don't know. If you've read anything by K. J. Parker and liked it, you'll probably like this. If you read K. J. Parker and didn't like it, you probably won't. For the vast majority of people who've never heard of K. J. Parker, here are a couple of quotes to at least try and illustrate what I'm talking about….

Our hero enters the city:

West had often told Jezal that the Northmen found in Adua, usually skulking dishevelled by the doccks or dirty drunk in gutters, were by no means typical of their people. Those that lived free in the far North, fighting, feuding, feasting, and doing whatever Northmen did, were of quite a different kind. A tall, fierce, handsome people, Jezal had always imagined, with a touch of romance about them. Strong, yet graceful. Wild, yet noble. Savage, yet cunning. The kind of men whose eyes are fixed always on the far horizon.
This was not one of those.
Never in his life had Jezel seen a more brutal–looking man. Even Fenris the Feared had seemed civilised by comparison. His face was like a whipped back, criss–crossed with ragged scars. His nose was bent, pointing off a little sideways. One ear had a big notch out of it, one eye seemed a touch higher than the other, surrounded by a crescent–shaped wound. His whole face, in fact, was slightly beaten, broken, lop–sided, like that of a prize fighter who has fought a few bouts too many. His expression, too, was that of one punch–drunk. He gawped up at the gatehouse, forehead furrowed, mouth hanging open, staring about him with a look of near animal stupidity.
Bayaz stolled out of the tunnel an into the open air, looking smug as ever. 'So Inquisitor,' he said breezily. 'How did you find your trip into the House of the Maker?'
A twisted, strange and gorrible nightmare. I might even have preferred to return to the Emperor's prisons for a few hours. 'Something to do of a morning,' he snapped.

Anyway, The Blade itself is nothing amazing, but Abercrombie does show promise. And it's a hell of lot better than other stuff that's being published, believe me. It would be four stars, but as the plot's a bit weak to support 400 pages, three.

June 30, 2006

The Gold Falcon

3 out of 5 stars

[First time I've ever had the wrong book cover come up. Don't ask me why. It doesn't really matter but the english edition has a slightly less garish cover..]

First off, given that this book is book four (probably of six) of the Dragon Mage series, itself sequal to the the four book Westlands Cycle in turn sequal to the four book Deverry series, any review of it will probably contain spoilers for any of the preceeding 11 books. Given that I read the preceeding two books about 5 years ago and the ones before them about 8 years ago, I can't be certain….

Kerr is not content with a simple series you see, her celtic inspired masterwork she herself described as resembling a celtic knot, in which seperate strands turn out to be all part of a greater single strand. So what she writes is a tapestry in which various characters are reborn in various times, bound by "Wyrd" (i.e. Karma, more or less) partly in response to the actions of their previous lives. So one particular character has remained fairly constant in character, but has mellowed from being dislikeable to merely irritating… This is not the complication of the series: that is that Kerr doesn't start with the chronolgically first time period and move forward, but instead centers a particular series on a later time period and makes random jumps back in time to tell other stories. A table of reincarnations is provided in an initially somewhat futile attempt to help keep the reader up to speed on who's who.

By this stage, however, it's rather more comforting to the reader to encounter the same old people, albeit with different names and faces. Rather like a soap opera, in fact, only with magic and dragons. In this book, we've got Ned and Branna, formerly the great "dweomermasters" (i.e. sorcerers, or something similar) reborn just in time to face another invasion by savage tribes.

Kerr is nothing if not thorough in her world building. The land of Deverry is worked out with history, politics, and religion, every bit of it grounded in reasonable assumptions. This is celtic inspired, but towns are suitably squalid, peasants suitably wretched, and lords arrogant and closed minded. (Xenophobic) Elves exist, complete with long lives, they can be killed just as easily as the next man. Magic ("Dweomer") exists, but miracles don't, the protagonists have no short cuts to amazing powers. In fact, with a genuine dark age approach to hygiene and medicine and marriages arranged at 16 with a high risk of the man dying in battle shortly afterwards, Deverry is not a particularly nice place to live.

It is a great place to set epic tales, but unfortunately The Gold Falcon falls into the middle of one. It fails to live up the climax of the preceeding book, and really just sets things up for the next two. It's a necessary part of the series, but really emphasises the need to consider the series as a whole. The plotline functions well enough on its own, but there are some nice bits there's nothing spectacular here. Five stars to the series, but three to this volume.

Jared Diamond – Collapse

4 out of 5 stars

Following on from his extremely successful Guns, Germs, and Steel, which dealt with the rise of civilizations, Diamond here considers their collapse. Through a series of case studies, he illustrates the the possible factors behind the fall of a civilization, and discusses just how fragile our world might be in the face of environmental forces.

Diamond moves from Montana to the Maya in a meticulous documenting of evidence. He considers archaeological evidence, literary sources, and in the more recent cases, common accounts. In every case, he ammasses a wealth of evidence to demonstrate the fragility of civilizations. In the second half of the book, he demonstrates how contemporary events in various cases follow the same patterns found in history. The final section of the book considers the global outlook, which is, needless to say, rather bleak.

It's very difficult to finish this book and remain optimistic for the fate of civilization as we know it, the lesson from history is that something has to give. Diamond identifies twelve serious environmental problems:

1. Destruction of natural habitats
2. Destruction of wild food sources
3. Destruction of biodiversity in general
4. Destruction of soil, particularly agricultural soil
5. Finite amounts of fossil fuels
6. Finite amounts of freshwater
7. Photosyntehtic ceiling (amount of the sun's energy that can (practically) be utilised)
8. Production of toxic chemicals
9. Introduction of alien species into habitats
10. Production of atmospheric gasses
11. Population increase
12. Increase in per–capita impact on the environment (environmental footprint)

As Diamond says, obviously these are all interlinked, but "any of our 12 problems of non–sustainability … would be sufficient to limit our lifestyle within the next several decades…. any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other. If we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all."

He is a little short on potential solutions, but I can't really blame him for that. This is certainly a book to make you think seriously about the environment, although to a certain extent I was already convinced, and I'd be interested to hear what any environmental sceptics thought of the book, as I don't have one to hand to question.

The writing style was at times a little dense, and the sheer weight of information on each case study provided got a bit much at times, I'd have been happy with the executive summary, taking a bit more on trust. This book seemed to fall a bit uneasily between pop science and a more scholarly tome, and I can't help but wonder how many of the thousands of copies apparently sold have actually been read. But highly reccommended nonetheless. Four Stars.

June 26, 2006

Charles Stross – The Family Trade

3 out of 5 stars

Something we've seen before this, a character from "our world" discovers a pathway to an alternate world. She turns out to be a long–lost member of a powerful family, and her rise to power seems certain. Stoss writes well, but there's not much outstanding here.

(Incidentally, a few other books that have done the same thing are Roger Zelazny's Changeling, J. V. Jones's The Barbed Coil, Phyllis Eisenstein's Shadow of Earth, and most recently Tad Williams's War of the Flowers. The last is probably the best I've read on this sort of theme.)

Miriam Beckstein is none too pleased at finding she's meant to be living another life. At 32, she's got a successful career as a journalist, and has no wish to go off and live in a draughty castle, particularly if it means marrying to cement an alliance. She's none too happy with her family, either, founded on an import/ export trade between worlds, an business in which drugs play an important part.

The alternate world is barely out of medieval ages, and a judicious use of modern technology allows Beckstein's relatives to keep control. The prospects for development don't look good, but she's determined to try and improve the lot of the populace. Stross does a competent job in portraying the political intricacies involved.

"Miriam… You're strong, but you don't know what you're talking about. I've been trying to resist the pressure for years. It doesn't work. The Clan will get you to do what they want you to do in the end. I spent years trying to get them to do something – land reform on their estates, educating the peasants, laying the groundwork for industrialization. All I got was shit. There are deeply entrenched political groupings within the Clan who don't want to see any modernization, because it threatens their source of power – access to imported goods."

This is better than most idealistic portrayals of one person changing the course of history in a couple of years, but The Family Trade still lacks a certain something. It's still a pleasant enough read, though, and maybe the sequal will be a bit more ambitious. Three stars.

Boris Akunin – The Winter Queen

4 out of 5 stars

This novel introduces Erast Fandorin, a new recruit to the Moscow CID in the late 19th century. Fandorin is sent to investigate the sucicide of a young student, and soon becomes enmeshed in an international plot that will take him to London and back in a hunt for the roots of a conspiracy.

Akunin (and his translator) has written 250 pages packed tight with action. Fandorin makes an entertaining James Bond figure, and the ending leaves you hungry for more. The writing voice is wonderful, detailed enough to paint a colourful picture, plain enough not to distract from the action. 4 stars.

June 24, 2006

the lamorna wink

1 out of 5 stars

I really have no excuse for reading this somewhat sorry excuse for a crime novel. Visiting a house filled with high quality literature, I happened to notice the title and, having lived half my life not 20 miles from Lamorna, glanced through the first through pages. I should probably have put it down there and then, but the trap had taken hold. Off I went through 435 dull pages of forgettable characters investigating a four year old murder and a week old disappearance. In Lamorna, a village that even the Cornish consider boring.

On I plodded, and, in due course, the murderer was unmasked after a fairly predictable chain of revalations, and an even more dull side story of a friend of a friend going to get married (or something like that) meandered along to a less than thrilling conclusion. Apparently this is one of a series featuring Richard Jury as the detective, but in this book he really played only a minor role, which perhaps explained why the major detective figure seemed to do nothing except stare at people with a piercing blue gaze whilst not taking his coat off. (I swear, my pulse beat faster every time he didn't take that coat off.)

I suppose if you're a diehard Martha Grimes fan, if there is such a thing, you might want to read this book. Otherwise you'll probably find more entertainment in the TV listings.

Charles Stross – The Atrocity Archives

3 out of 5 stars

At the more scientific end of the "new wierd" spectrum, Charles Stross's first novel is a blend of Len Deighton and H. P. Lovecraft, with maybe a hint of Neal Stephenson. It's great fun, but ultimately lacks the spark of Stross's Accelerando.

In a bizare parallel world, a combination of ancient lore and modern cryptography has enabled a branch of the security services to gain mastery over what is effectively magic. Not that they use it for their own good, mind you, but to combat the possible invasion of earth by various extra–dimensional demons. Bob Howard is drawn into a tale of equal parts horrific encounters with demonic entities and office politics.

Once again, I've not got the book to hand to provide quotes, but Stross's prose is as entertaining as ever, if perhaps not quite as perspicacious as in his later books. Unfortunately, the plot fails to measure up. The book's divided into two stories, and the first, The Atrocity Archive is gripping enough in a lighthearted way, but the same humourous tone defeats any real sense of menace. The second shorter tale The Concrete Jungle centres on an idea that's interesting enough (and vital to the plot, so I won't reveal it here), but fails to generate much of a story from it.

This book is ultimately a superior sort of brain candy, comparable to a £3.79 pack of marshmallows I bought from curiosity the other day from Selfridges. A superior product by far than most of what's on the market, but when all's said and done, not something you can derive sustenance from.

June 20, 2006

Librarything rocks

Writing about web page

Has anyone else tried using It's an online cataloguing site fof books. Basically, you enter a few details, it checks the book from amazon and various library sites, and you can build up a virtual catalogue of your books. Although this is quite cool in itself, and means you don't have to move from the computer to scan through your bookcase, the best part is that it enables you to compare your library with everyone else's. I tried just entering the last few books I've read (the ones reviewed on this blog to date, actually) and already the reccomendations are much more accurate than Amazon's.

You can also bulk import lists, and it claims to allow exporting the data, although I haven't worked out how to do this yet. This should in theory allow you to extract the catalogue and play around with it in any other database program…..

I know it's basically just another way of wasting time on the internet, but try it – you need never again wonder what to read next!

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