Category Archives: Books

A Long Time Gone


A picture of a dead whale. Because this blog is like a … never mind.

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Not that this was deliberate on my part. I had plenty of intentions of posting new and fascinating content, but circumstance and laziness always got in the way. I do intend to be better though. Thoughts about films, books and games will be forthcoming, and there will – in a not overextended period of time – be more travel journals. (Yes, that time of the year has come around again. I have become terribly predictable in my elder years.) In the meantime, a few thoughts on some of the media I’ve been consuming lately.

Mysterium: It’s a board game. Which is not something that I play enough of these days. (There’s a Tuesday evening boardgaming evening in the Black Sheep pub in Dublin that I’ve been making excuses for not going to for weeks now.) What sold me on Mysterium was the review from Shut Up and Sit Down, a site you should really be following. Boiled down to a brief description, it’s cooperative psychic Cluedo (Clue for Americans) and is as easy to play and strange as that description suggests. One player is a silent ghost who hands out vision cards to the gathered psychics; the others are those selfsame psychics, who must use those visions to solve a long-ago murder. Cue a lot of confused babbling about the exact meaning of the symbolism on the vision cards and exasperated gurning on the part of the Ghost, who doesn’t understand why they can’t figure it out. It’s a lot of fun, and most importantly you don’t need to be a boardgame veteran to play. Highly recommended.

(I also played Cards Against Humanity for the first time at a recent wedding (no, really) and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that I am a horrible person. Which is all that you need to know about that.)

The Just City: I burned my way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy recently, having enjoyed the TV series to start with, so normally I’d be writing about that. But I’d been looking forward to reading Jo Walton’s The Just City for so long that it sneaks in ahead of it. The high concept – the goddess Athena decides to build the theoretical state from Plato’s The Republic as an experiment – is delightful, and the execution more than lives up to it. The viewpoint characters are chosen to pick apart the assumptions of privilege and precedent at the heart of Plato’s supposed clean-slate state, and while it’s no surprise when holes are poked in it, the manner in which it happens is consistently engaging. The second book in this series is already out, and the third is coming soon, and if they live up to the opener they’ll have a happy place for themselves on my bookshelves.

Stellaris: It’s been an odd year for games. This was the first of three games I was really looking forward to, and poor reviews for the latter two – No Man’s Sky and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – have put me off splashing money on them until the next Steam sale. So in the moments between the vaguely social activities that are my forays into Lord of the Rings Online, I’ve been playing Paradox’s Stellaris, a mostly successful attempt to lift its grand strategy template into space and take the place of much-loved classics like Master of Orion. The opening stages of the game, as with all Civilization-style games, are the key draw, as you map out a galaxy for your new interstellar power (designed with plenty of freedom courtesy of the game’s engine), and the mid-game has improved with Paradox’s legendary post-launch support. As yet, none of my games have made it into the late-game phase, so I can’t really report on that (blame LotRO) but with larger patches and content expansions looming, I’m looking forward to seeing the game it becomes.

Film: Honestly, nothing I’ve seen in the past few months has really floated my boat. Which is a little depressing. Overhyped offerings are the order of the day in blockbuster season, and even those films that promise something more haven’t gone anywhere. There’s been no Mad Max: Fury Road this year, and while that’s a high bar to clear, it would be nice if someone at least got close. Or made the attempt.

So, that’s where I am right now. There are political thoughts (shudder) and other matters in my brain that may or may not get exposed in the three-and-a-bit weeks before I escape on another travelogue. In the meantime, my apologies for having been absent and my promise to be a little more present in the weeks and months to come.

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Reading Philosophy, History and Engineering

  

I'll settle for eclectic. There are worse alternatives.
The “eclectic” results of a bookstore raid, as someone else described them.
 

Every so often, I drop into a bookshop. I try not to do it too much, because once there, I have a tendency to buy things. On one of my more recent visits, I picked up three good-sized books, which did wonders for my loyalty card. Less so for my wallet. Luckily for this blog, there was a thematic connection running through all three of them, so I get to package up their reviews in a single post. (Arranged, for the convenience of the reader, in order of increasing worth.)
The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt

The concept behind Greenblatt’s book is an appealing one: in the 15th century, a bibliophile, classicist and proto-humanist called Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in an Alpine monastery. This lost work of Epicurean philosophy offered a new way of looking at the world and helped spark into life the Renaissance. Sadly, while Greenblatt weaves an entertaining story, he doesn’t quite manage to live up to the headline.

There are a lot of moving parts here, and Greenblatt does a good job of outlining Epicurus’s philosophy and why works like Lucretius’s epic poem were suppressed in an increasingly Christian world. He also succeeds in portraying the slippery character of Poggio Bracciolini, a cynical papal secretary in love with the classical world, as well as the political and religious milieu he operated in. Where the author falls down is in demonstrating how the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura fed into the heaving intellectual scene of the time.

Notable figures from Shakespeare to Da Vinci certainly read Lucretius’s poem, and Greenblatt points out many times and places where references to it crop up. However, as a work of classical poetry and philosophy, it’s hardly alone in that sense, and the book peters out rather than rises to a climax. It’s a shame—in the life of Poggio Bracciolini, the impact of Epicurean thought and the turbulent times of 15th century Europe, there’s enough material for a handful of books. As it is, Greenblatt has delivered an entertainingly told, but ultimately unsatisfying, tale.
Action Philosophers Omnibus, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

From the impact of one philosopher to the body-slamming impact of more than two dozen heavyweight thinkers in a comic book battle royale. Van Lente and Dunlavey’s exploration of the thoughts and lives of some of the greatest thinkers in human history is constantly entertaining and far more thought-provoking than its funnybook styling would suggest.

An omnibus edition of previously published comics, the individuals profiled are here arranged into something resembling chronological order, from the Pre-Socratics to Ayn Rand. And while the authors’ preferences sometimes shine through, they do their best to be even-handed, pointing out facts like Thomas Jefferson’s multiple hypocrisies and the fact that almost all we know of Socrates (who doesn’t get a section of his own) comes through the words of Plato, presented here as the former wrestler he actually was.

Unlike a lot of comic books and graphic novel, Action Philosophers requires the reader to pause in their reading and consider the words and thoughts of the great philosophers. This is to its detriment as a comic book, but given that there’s a lot of clever ideas and imagination at work in presenting these sometimes complex ideas, it doesn’t suffer all that much. And while philosophy majors might decry the short shrift given to their heroes in the few pages each one is afforded, as an introduction to some of the deepest thinkers of the past 2,500 years, it’s hard to beat. Plus, as a bonus at the end, a reading list and a guide to critical thinking and argumentation are provided in the same fashion as the rest of the omnibus. Highly recommended.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Sydney Padua

Unlike her hero and heroine, Sydney Padua actually managed to turn her concept into an actual product, and we’re all the beneficiaries. From an initial one-shot webcomic about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, inventor of the first computer and the first computer programmer respectively, Padua spun off into an irregular webcomic and has now produced a book that manages to be both riotously funny and deeply informative about its two protagonists and the machine they never quite created.

Never quite created in the real world that is, as the conceit of Padua’s book is the creation of a bubble universe, in which the wonders of steampunk technology and boundless optimism have allowed Lovelace and Babbage to indulge their every technological whim while encountering just about every major figure of Victorian England’s social scene (Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a burly action hero is a particular highlight). That the result is such a well-balanced book is down to a combination of Padua’s skill as an artist and writer, her comprehensive research, her clear affection for her protagonists blends nicely with the poignancy of the fact that in the real world Lovelace died young and Babbage old, having never brought to fruition any of the schemes that he devised.

The Thrilling Adventures is simultaneously a tribute to its heroes, a rollicking series of adventures in which they star and a deep dive into their lives and the technology that almost (but probably never could have) started the computer revolution a century early. Add to that the fact that the hardback edition of the book is a beautifully made tome and I can’t really recommend it highly enough. It’s enough to make you wish you were living in a steampunk world of dashing, pipe-smoking female mathematicians, absent minded technological geniuses and action-hero engineers.

Terry Pratchett – An Appreciation



So much enjoyment in so little space.
A Pratchett bookshelf – and this isnt all of it.


Certain authors and novels, if you come across them at the right age, will change your life. Terry Pratchett was one of those authors for me, and while his recent death was long anticipated, due to the cruelty of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the news, when it came, proved just as gut-wrenching as the original announcement of his illness had been.

Already, there have been plenty of appreciations of the man and his work. It’s a mark of both the nature of the man and the talent of the author that someone who primarily wrote comedic fantasy touched as many people across as many fields as he did.

I never met Terry Pratchett—the closest I came was during one of his visits to Dublin, when I spotted him walking in College Green, heading from Trinity College to (presumably) a pub, surrounded by a gaggle of students and admirers. It would have been nice to have the chance to talk to him, but at that stage he’d been talking to me through his work for years.

Books like Good Omens, Small Gods and Pyramids reduced me to helpless giggling more than any since Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Another author and decent human being taken too soon.) Across the 40 books of the Discworld series, Pratchett mixed the deftest wordplay with humour both low and cutting and serious thoughts that stole upon you in the midst of the laughter and stuck around long after the jokes were done.

As a kid growing up in a Northern Ireland still caught up in the lunacy of the Troubles, Pratchett provided constant reassurance that there was a better humanity out there. That being decent to other human beings mattered most of all, that you ought to be suspicious of anyone or any organisation that would tell you what to think, that being curious, patient, and argumentative were all good things. Thoughts that I found it hard to express, even as I was working them out in my own head, I found reflected in his prose.

As an aspiring writer, the most important thing I learned from him was that it was possible to underlay fantasy and science fiction writing with serious topics without preaching to your audience. I learned as well that language was a game, one that you won if you brought a smile to your audience’s face, or just made them pause and consider for a moment.

As a human being, he was, like his collaborator Neil Gaiman, like Douglas Adams and Charles Darwin, one of those people it was possible to admire without having to look up to them. Possessed of immense talent that never overwhelmed his innately decent humanity, yet driven by an inner anger that allowed him to churn out books of breathtaking quality and wit year after year.

That same anger helped him to deal with the unfairness of his diagnosis. Deeming it “an embuggerance,” he continued to live his life even more fully than before, fighting on behalf of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and those who believed that they had a right to end a life that had become unbearable. His eloquent arguments in favour of the right to die in the manner of his own choosing revived a debate that is still going on.

Reading Pratchett and authors like him and growing up where I did and among my family and friends has led me to the belief that if we have a purpose in life, it’s to increase the amount of happiness in the world, both your own and that of those around you. Far more than the number of books he sold, the joy that his work and personality brought to so many is a marker of his success in life.

If I ever have any kids, I’ll enjoy sharing his books with them. And whether or not they turn out to be fans like me, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned in reading his books will be the same lessons I share with them.

Good Omens About the Radio

I'd give anything to have been at that reading...
The Good Omens team gathered for a reading. Aren’t they a lovely bunch?

What’s your favourite book?

It’s always been a tough question to answer for me. What are the criteria? The Lord of the Rings is a superlative work of creation. Rubicon is as great a work of historical narrative as I’ve ever read. The Lies of Locke Lamora impressed me more than any novel in the past ten years and genuinely shocked me with one of its many twists. Planetary and V for Vendetta are superbly well-crafted comics series. I could dig in to my library and make an argument for many more of the books in there.

But if I’m allowed to narrow it down to the book that has given me the most joy, then the answer’s easier. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are two of my favourite authors, their storytelling skills and mastery of wordplay having made me smile more often than most, and when they collaborated to create a novel, they both surpassed themselves. That novel, Good Omens, reduced me to even more helpless giggling than Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide series ever managed.

The news, then, that Pratchett and Gaiman are adapting Good Omens as a six-part BBC Radio 4 dramatisation, just fills me with even greater joy. Add to that the fact that the team behind it was also responsible for last year’s wonderful adaptation of Gaiman’s Neverwhere and joy levels are starting to reach near-terminal levels. Anything else? Oh yes, how about the amazing Peter Serafinowicz as co-lead Crowley, “an angel who did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards”.*

Needless to say, a radio-centric Christmas can’t come soon enough. I may just have to dig out my very-well thumbed copy of the original novel** and remind myself of just how good it is in order to prepare myself…

*He hadn’t meant to fall. He’d just hung around with the wrong people.

**It was first published in 1990. That’s … quite a while ago.

Three Writers, One Reader

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Not pictured: Bloody huge and expensive collected editions.

So today I managed to make it to the comics shop, for a rather expensive visit. I only bought three actual comics, but the majority of the expense came from two omnibus editions that I’d been waiting on. More about those anon, but the three single-issue comics I picked up make for an interesting compare-and-contrast, so that’s what I’m going to do. Three writers, all British, of differing eras and evoking rather different responses.

First up on the critical chopping block is Grant Morrison with Multiversity #1. Morrison was an early arrival to American comics, part of the first wave of British writers who invaded in the wake of Alan Moore’s work on Swamp Thing and Watchmen. That makes him a contemporary of Neil Gaiman, but whereas Gaiman is a master storyteller, Morrison is more interested in the intersection between stories and the real world. With Morrison’s work, the storyteller’s mind is almost always visible, and while that can create intellectually challenging work, it also leaves the writer in danger of disappearing up his own fundament.*

With Multiversity, Morrison continues his role as the mad genius of DC Comics. In this role, he’s been responsible for some fascinating comics (Batman Inc., Seven Soldiers of Victory), some messy disasters (Final Crisis), and at least one work of genius (All-Star Superman). Multiversity is very much more in the mode of Final Crisis—a massive crossover “event” title, but whereas for that Morrison was seen as an architect of DC strategy, with all the associated editorial fetters that brings, here he’s been given multiple alternative universes to play with, outside of DC’s mainstream output. The result is a title that’s fascinating to read but not exactly easy to understand.

Multiversity is very much a comic about comics, addressing itself directly to the reader on the first page. It’s illustrated in classic heroic style by Ivan Reis, but as always with Morrison, there’s little assistance for the initiated. The tendency of characters to declaim rather than talk, the inspection of all the strange corners of superhero comics, the combination of playfulness with epic themes: there’s plenty of meat here for Morrison fans and superhero scholars, but if you’re not one or the other, or possibly both, you’re likely to be left cold.

If Multerversity tends towards the opaque, Warren Ellis’s Supreme: Blue Rose #2 is wilfully obscure. Ellis is of the generation after Morrison, arriving in American comics with Marvel before proceeding to redefine the breadth of the superhero genre with The Authority and its depth with Planetary, then kicking it in the balls with the genuinely hilarious Nextwave. Ellis’s comics output has been sketchy in recent years for various reasons, not least of which is his own curiosity. He jumps from theme to theme and technique to technique in a manner that’s probably a little frustrating to his fans (such as myself), but the result is a body of work that’s probably the most diverse in mainstream comics today.

With Supreme: Blue Rose, Ellis is doing an unusual thing for him and walking in already-trodden ground. The character of Supreme was created by Rob Liefeld as a modern Superman clone and reinvented by Alan Moore as a vehicle for investigating and celebrating the strangeness of Golden Age superhero comics. Ellis’s take on the character is hard to define as yet (two issues in and there’s no sign of anyone called Supreme) but he’s definitely found something in the idea that he thinks is worth mining, as the central character of Diana Dane begins to explore a universe seemingly gone awry and existing as one of many possible realities.

So far, it’s hard to tell where Ellis is going with all of this. That’s not to say that the feeling of being confused is an unpleasant one. Ellis likes to experiment with the comics form, occasionally paring it back to the bare essentials, but on his game he’s as good a storyteller as anyone, and here he’s aided and abetted by the painterly beauty of Tula Lotay’s artwork, all sketchwork and pastel colours. Supreme: Blue Rose may eventually take its place among Ellis’s finest works, or it may falter and prove to be a flawed experiment. Either way, on current evidence, it’s fascinating and worth your time.

Rounding out the British trio is Kieron Gillen, with The Wicked + the Divine #3. Gillen is a recent arrival on the American comics scene, having enjoyed critical and fan acclaim for his runs on Journey into Mystery and Iron Man. Here he’s working again with his most notable artistic partner, Jamie McKelvie, with whom he’s already created Phonogram and Young Avengers. I’ve only recently started picking up his work, but he started by reading the same sort of comics as me**, and I’ve been reading his writing since his time as a writer for PC Gamer magazine.

With The Wicked + the Divine, as with Phonogram, Gillen is riffing on his love of music. A tale of mortals reborn as gods, living two years of glory before inevitable death, it’s laden down with as many fascinating resonances and sources as the work of Ellis and Morrison but presented in a much more approachable fashion. Perhaps a little too approachable—the first two issues had introduced the world and its main characters in sure-footed fashion, but #3 not only brings in a tricky character in the form of the triple-goddess Morrigan but also lays out the murder mystery that’s driving the series’ opening arc. It does so in a playful fashion, but it’s creaking a little at the seams, never more so than on the third page, which is painfully reminiscent of Ellis’ work on Transmetropolitan.***

However, when the worst you can say about a comic is that it creaks a little in presenting its backstory, and the only actual misstep takes up no more than a single page, then you’re talking about something special. McKelvie’s art is clear and attractive, fitted perfectly to Gillen’s tale of modern-day gods of the music world, and this is just the first act of a series that’s aiming to be another long-form novel in graphic form, akin to Sandman and Transmetropolitan. Gillen’s fondness for twists in the narrative is already much in evidence, and for myself I wouldn’t be surprised if his reader-substitute, point-of-view character Laura is hiding a few dark secrets of her own. Whether you prefer single issues or collected editions, The Wicked + the Divine is something you might want to sample to see if it fits your frame of mind.

Oh, and as for those omnibuses? Well, one of them was the second half of Gillen’s run on Journey into Mystery, wherein his mastery of building a twist narrative and his equal mastery of screwing with the emotions of his Tumblr followers first came into public view. The other was the fourth and penultimate volume of Mike Carey’s Lucifer, the real successor to Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman. Carey is a writer who deserves a post all of his own, given my love of his work, and I hope to get around to writing that eventually.

*One of Morrison’s best works, to my mind, is We3, in which he restrains his metatextual tendencies.

**During his Iron Man run, Gillen managed to secure my everlasting affection by bringing back one of my favourite characters, Death’s Head, in a pitch-perfect cameo role.

***Ellis is an acknowledged influence on Gillen’s work. Gillen has also taken to heart Ellis’s engagement with his online audience, focusing in particular on Tumblr, where he regularly dissects the thinking behind his own work.

Carey Good Comics

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Take three in the morning and call me in the afternoon.

The Amazon fairy brought me some reading goodness over the past weekend, in the form of a trio of graphic novels from one of my favourite writers: Mike Carey. The first was a reprint of a series I’ve long had in the less-convenient monthly form, Lucifer, the latter two were the sixth and seventh installments of Carey’s current magnum opus, The Unwritten.

Lucifer was one of several spin-off series that DC Comics released in the wake of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Of all those spin offs, it came closest to the original in form and longevity, though Carey brought a very distinct tone to it. Whereas Sandman was a tour through mythology and storytelling, revolving around the enigmatic figure of Morpheus, Lucifer skews closer to a traditional quest tale, as the much more forceful title figure overcomes all obstacles as part of his plan to obtain his freedom from all authority and destiny.

Carey’s Lucifer hews closely to the Miltonian ideal of the ultimate rebel and borrows heavily from the “Magnificent Bastard” trope: an unsympathetic figure who’s just so damned (pun intended) impressive that you can’t help but root for him. Carey plays this up by regularly placing his protagonist in positions where he’s powerless and has him come out on top by out-thinking those who set themselves against him.

This beefy collected edition brings together the original Lucifer miniseries and the first 13 issues of the regular series. It’s far from perfect, as Carey seeks to find the right way to tell his tale and deals with changes in artist, but by the end it’s caught the wave that would carry it all the way to the end, the details of which I’m not going to spoil here.

The Unwritten is much more recent vintage Carey, sharing much of the same interest in myth and storytelling, but here using them as a theme rather than as props. Like Lucifer it builds on the work of another author, but here the chosen one is J.K. Rowling. The protagonist is the son of an author of a Harry Potter-like series, and his life is turned upside down when questions are asked about the links between him and his father’s most famous creation.

This isn’t just a Potter pastiche though. Carey’s interest is in how stories affect us and how we in turn affect them, and to explore this he tosses his likeable cast into a labyrinth of literary theories and allusions. Not that he wanders too far into the highbrow either: there are vampires and monsters aplenty to go with the ever-present Potterisms, and a multitude of mysteries to be uncovered.

As the books I received were well into the long-form story, I won’t discuss them here, other than to say that they continue the process of revealing the truth behind Carey’s universe of stories. It’s a journey that I’ve been enjoying ever since I picked up the first book. Carey as a writer has come on in leaps and bounds since Lucifer, and he was already pretty damn good then. Anyone with even a passing interest in myths and stories could do far worse than picking these tales up.

December 2012 Book Reviews

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Arranged in ascending order of whatever explanation you prefer.

This last collection of book reviews for 2012 is a little late. Not, surprisingly, for reasons of laziness, but rather because I, well, cheated. The last book mentioned below, God’s War was begun and mostly read in December, but I only finished it yesterday. Which means, by the mostly arbitrary rules this blog follows, it should go in the January pile of reviews. However, there isn’t going to be a January pile.

Not that I’m going to stopping writing the reviews: I enjoy them too much. Specifically, I enjoy the challenge of summing up my thoughts on a book in just three readable sentences without resorting to ridiculously long run-on constructions. (And yes, sometimes I have resorted thusly, but I try not to.) However, what with the demands of college, which are only going to increase in the months ahead, there aren’t likely to be enough reviews to make a monthly pace sustainable.

Which is a pity, as it’s been a very handy way to ensure that I post at least once every month.

Anyway, the reviews will return, in some form, whenever I build up enough of them. For now though, enjoy the last of the current batch and I’ll wander off to dream up some new, non-time-consuming theme to ensure regular posting.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien: In the run up to the movie, this was a must-read, and it was great to return to it, both for memories of reading it myself and of reading it to my little brother when he was in primary school. It’s not The Lord of the Rings by a long shot, but it remains very much a classic, this story of an unwilling everyman who finds that his unsuspected virtues are just what is needed on a quest to face down a dragon and recover a lost kingdom. Wonderful incidental touches punctuate an otherworldly story in a richly developed world, and one that takes little or no time to dive into and get yourself lost in.

Northlanders: The Icelandic Trilogy, Brian Wood et al.: Wood rounds off his “Viking” series with the story of an Icelandic settler family, from their earliest days on the island to the loss of independence at the hands of Norway. This is nation-building from the viewpoint of a family willing to do anything to build and hold what’s theirs, and it’s gritty and at times unpleasant stuff, as this is a series that has never shied away from the more squalid corners of Viking life. As a signoff for a series cancelled before its time, its suitably downbeat and defiant, and if the art is not going to suit every taste, the writing ably portrays lives as bleak and enduring as the landscape they inhabit with minimal strokes.

God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman: This is a massive and exhaustive tome that examines all aspects of the crusading phenomenon over several centuries in an effort to create a coherent view of the world it sprang from and inflicted itself upon. Tyerman’s approach is to see the crusades not merely as a series of conflicts between the Christian and Muslim worlds, but rather as a way of life and a belief system that infected the European world for centuries. This approach sometimes leads him to jump back and forward in time to tie his points together, but it’s still a very readable account given the amount of detail it employs.