Archive

Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

December 2012 Book Reviews

January 7, 2013 1 comment

20130107-221906.jpg
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.

November Book Reviews

December 15, 2012 Leave a comment

20121215-154434.jpg
So many people looking for books as Christmas presents.

Yes, this is very late. I’ve been busy. College stuff, you know? Of which more, hopefully, anon. More on a lot of things anon, with any luck. The first semester is over, and I may just take a few days to reset my brain before the Christmas break, during which I’ll have more College stuff to do. Of course.

In the meantime though: reviews!

Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul: Exactly what are games, and video games in particular, and how are they defined by the real rules that players interact with and the fictional worlds the games themselves present? Juul takes a systematic approach to both elements of video games, exploring first their presence in games throughout history, then their development in the video game era, then looking at how video games have combined both elements, either successfully or not so successfully. Though laden with examples and thoroughly explained and footnoted, this is a very readable tour through video game history and explanation of a theory of game design and development.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward R. Tufte: A classic in the annals of graphic design, this is a survey of the use and abuse of charts and tables, breaking down every technique going and then building up a new methodology to guide anyone seeking to convey data through the intelligent application of ink. Tufte is a laconic host for this process, saying no more than he has to as he praises the best charts and dryly demolishes the foolishness, frippery and plain misleading imagery of the worst. In the end, the reader will at the very least know how to charts better than they did before, and if they make charts regularly, they may just want to own a copy for their reference library.

The Walking Dead Compendium 2, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard: Collecting another fifty or so issues of the indie zombie comic hit, this is a solid slab of post-apocalyptic depression literature in which horrible things happen to good people who have no choice but to become not-so-good so that bad things don’t continue to happen, at least not quite so often. This large chunk of the story allows the reader to get a feel for where Kirkman is going with his series, but sadly despite a more upbeat turn towards the end, there’s still no strong through-line beyond survival and a vague hope for the return of civilisation. As the threat of the walking dead is replaced by that of other humans, Adlard’s art remains as impressive in rendering a bleak, hopeless world as always, but it’s the details of the story that will require the strongest stomach from readers who get no humour and few rays of light to leaven the misery.

Dodger, Terry Pratchett: Not quite fantasy and not quite history, this is a tour through the grimier corners of Victorian London, in the company of another of Terry Pratchett’s sharp operators and an array of supporting characters, both historical and fictional. As he nears the end of his career, Pratchett seems determined to forge happy endings from the most unlikely material, and though as a result there’s little narrative tension here, it’s still a tale delightfully told. A lot of the appeal comes from the historical detail, and while there’s far more warmth than humour, it’s hard to imagine that there are many people who won’t find themselves smiling at least once or twice.

March Book Reviews

April 9, 2012 1 comment

A decent month of reading in March, mostly populated by fantasy, with a bit of Western in there too. Also the month in which I picked up an iPhone app that allowed me to catalogue my library. Not really a good thing to do to someone who has problems keeping his obsessive-compulsive tendencies at bay at the best of times…

Tongues of Serpents, Naomi Novik: Being an even-numbered offering in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, it shouldn’t be too surprising that this book mostly concerns itself with new lands and interesting cultures, nor that it isn’t quite as gripping as the action-oriented, odd-numbered books. Stuck in Australia, far from the Napoleonic wars, Captain Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire indulge in some personal conflicts and a long chase across the outback, ending in a brief fracas that does more to set up plot points for later stories than provide a satisfying ending in and of itself. Still eminently readable and interesting as an alternate fantasy-history, this series is in danger of becoming just a little too predictable.

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie: Populated with broken, angry, epically flawed characters, the first book in Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy is gritty stuff, with hints of high fantasy and ancient powers interspersed with brutal violence and Machiavellian politics. Although very much the first third of a larger story, there’s enough here for the reader to get their teeth into, even if most of it does come by the way of characters who refuse to be as predictable as they might be in another author’s hands. Whether the rest of the trilogy lives up to this impressive start remains to be seen, but Abercrombie has done all that he needed to encourage readers to pick up book two.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt: A laconic, darkly humorous tale of the dysfunctional relationship between two hired-killer brothers in the Wild West, this is as much as anything a homage to classic Western tales. Narrated by the philosophical, fatalistic Eli Sisters, it’s packed full of incident and strangeness yet always remains within orbiting distance of reality, or at least as close as Gold Rush-era California ever got to reality. Very deserving of its critical acclaim, it retains an oddly gentle and thoughtful tone throughout, even in the face of the high level of violence and death that accompanies its protagonists.

The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson: Some classic fantasy, born from a melding of Norse and Celtic myth and folklore, telling the tale of a doomed hero, his changeling replacement and the woman caught between them. Anderson wastes no words as he sets up a layered world of gods and faerie creatures, all operating parallel to the course of history, and the passions that drive his characters and full-blooded, whether they are dark or heroic. As with any good mythic tale, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy that emerges to dominate as the tale comes to its end, with a sense of a world coming to an end as myths and legends die, but this is a rich enough offering to stand with the best of the myths that have been hallowed by the centuries.

Before They Are Hanged, Joe Abercrombie: As his “First Law” series continues, Abercrombie takes the characters he’d introduced in the first book and throws them into the deep end, whether it’s war, a siege or a journey to the end of the world. Those characters and their multifarious flaws are what gives this series its punch, though as the author opens up the myth-making behind his world, he increases the sense of real consequence to the wars and struggles he presents. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that after two books, the story doesn’t feel like it’s two-thirds over: there’s a lot of wrapping up to be done in the pages to come.

February Book Reviews

March 2, 2012 2 comments

20120302-140822.jpg
Bookshelves: slightly dusty. My mother would not approve.

A shorter month than the rest but longer than normal. And more reading than I managed to do in January, mostly because I managed to clear away the Banville blockage that was keeping me from the printed page. After that, I had to resort to some lighter and more enjoyable fare…

Eclipse, John Banville: Employing his mastery of the English language to depict an episode in the life of a self-absorbed actor, Banville delivers a piece that is self-consciously a work of art as much as it is a novel. Concerning itself with things occluded and an inability to comprehend the inner workings of the world and the human mind, it allows the reader to marvel at the author’s ability to spin words according to his will, but engagement with the narrator’s life falls by the wayside. A novel so involved with emotions should not perhaps be so cold, but it engages the intellect where it fails to spark the soul, making it an intriguing exercise rather than an absorbing read.

Empire of Ivory, Naomi Novik: For the fourth book in her “Temeraire” series, Novik once again sends Captain Will Laurence and his eponymous dragon on their travels, this time to darkest Africa. It’s a more successfully depicted journey than the second book’s trip to China, due largely to a greater sense of threat and urgency, and Novik continues to fill in the corners of her world, providing yet another slant on the notion of a Napoleonic world with dragons. It’s not wholly successful, as the final third of the book is largely detached from what comes before, but as before it’s the strength of the characters and their utterly believable emotional ties and dilemmas that pulls the whole thing through.

Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik: The fifth book in the “Temeraire” series would serve as a surprisingly poignant point of closure, if not for the fact that there’s more of this fascinating world to explore, as the final chapters make clear. Ramping up the action right from the start, Novik for the first time makes the dragon Temeraire an equal point of view character with his captain Will Laurence, and it’s a mostly successful move, even if Laurence’s personal history and reactions to the situations he finds himself in remain the core of the book. Some impressive battles and well-thought out strategy and tactics keep the whole thing moving, but surprisingly, a lack of copy editing in the version I read gave an unpleasant feeling that the whole thing was rushed into publication.

Redbreast, Jo Nesbo: A Scandinavian crime thriller that wears its moral message more lightly than Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, this is an engaging and clever read that only suffers by not being wholly complete in and of itself. Nesbo’s Harry Hole is an appealingly dogged and down-at-heel detective, and the World War II story and aftermath that surrounds his latest case will make it all the more enticing for history buffs. However, the real draw lies in the vivid characters and interesting world that Nesbo has created, as well as the jolts of horrible violence that occasionally intrude on all of them.

January Book Reviews

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment
Going for tenuous relevance to the text here...

A City Under a City: Washington's Metro

January was a busy month: getting settled into a new mode of working and chasing down leads for actual work. Add into that an effort to be sociable, healthy and productive in the middle of winter, and somehow books got left by the wayside. Accordingly, only two reviews this time around. Film reviews, as promised, have been shunted off into the twittersphere, visible to the right, while my thoughts on games are still forthcoming. (Yes, it’s all a grand delay, but work is in progress…)

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall: The somewhat crazy world of ultrarunners, for whom marathons are nothing but a warm up, is the subject of this occasionally hyperbolic but very readable book. McDougall structures his tale around a search for the semi-mythical Tarahumara tribe of Native Americans, who ran their way into obscurity in Mexico, and an attempt to set up the ultimate race between them and the best that the running world has to offer, but a huge chunk of the fun comes from the digressions into the strange characters who populate this world. Occasionally it all seems a bit too weird to be non-fiction, but it’s enough fun that it might even encourage some readers to take up running (if not ultrarunning, admittedly).

The City and the City, China Miéville: On the surface, this is a Kafka- and Orwell-infused detective novel set in two intertwined cities, but at its heart, it’s about the power of the human mind and society to create and bind us to a particular reality. At the outset, language is used as a distancing device, with odd phrasings dragging readers out of their comfort zone, but it seems that the author abandons this device further in, perhaps to give those readers a feeling of acclimatising themselves. Like a lot of Miéville’s work, it’s more interesting than engaging, but if the ideas herein appeal to you and you prefer your reality tinged with weirdness, rather than fantasy, you might find it worth exploring.

December Reviews

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

20120103-133215.jpg
Nothing to with the reviews; just a nice photo.

I started writing these reviews around the beginning of 2011. At first they were mostly a writing challenge: sum up my reaction to a piece of work in three sentences. All the same, I stuck them up on my old LiveJournal, then brought them here too, as an aid to my own memory and recommendations to my few readers of the things that I enjoy. It’s nice to get a full year in, and this is probably an apt time for a review of the reviews.

The film reviews are fun, but as films don’t last long in the cinema these days, gathering them up in a monthly bundle means they’re mostly out of date by the time they’re released. The solution is to deliver them more quickly, either in longer format, so as to be worthy of a full post, or short enough to fit in a Tweet. I’ll probably go the latter way, unless I come across a film I really like.

The book reviews work best, as they’re not as time-limited as the film reviews. They’ll probably continue as they have been, though I’ll likely tinker with the three-sentence structure.

Game reviews were an occasional feature, and I’ve been thinking about them a fair bit as I’ve been working on working in that area. I hope to have more of those in the future, in a longer format and focused on the role of story in games. Specifically where it works, where it doesn’t, and why. Ambitious, but it’ll be helpful to me if no one else.

Without further ado then, on with the last reviews of 2011.

Books

Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik: With the second book in her “Temeraire” series, Novik slows down her narrative a little but maintains the high degree of plausibility in terms of both character and world-building that marked her debut. Both a sequel and a stand-alone tale, “Throne of Jade” suffers a little from the fact that its central conflict is wrapped in diplomacy and subterfuge, making the ending somewhat abrupt after a long, careful build up. Not that it needs to be saved, so high is the quality of the writing, but the utterly believable, sympathetic and well developed characters of the dragon Temeraire and his captain and companion Will Laurence make this indispensable for anyone who read and enjoyed the first book.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman: A pseudo-sequel to Stoker’s “Dracula”, based on the idea that Dracula not only survived but succeeded in subjugating Britain, Newman’s book is a gleeful romp through Victorian-era tropes, with every page offering a plethora of in-jokes and references both subtle and obvious for the discerning and informed reader. The central mystery of the identity of a “Jack the Ripper” of vampire victims is revealed right away, making the chase to find the killer more of a vehicle to explore Newman’s vampire-dominated Britain. The weakness of the central plot and a pair of lead characters who are made distant by their experiences and attitudes make the book a little less visceral than it should be, but it’s a very enjoyable experience nonetheless.

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey: Old-style science fiction from one of the masters of the genre, this is less interested in the nuts and bolts of a possible future than it is with the predicament of a woman who serves as the mind of a ship and has to deal with emotional entanglements with the fully embodied humans who pass through her life. McCaffrey invests her heroine with a feisty, yearning humanity, and the futuristic background adds colour without serving up too many anachronisms to jolt the modern reader. It’s the humanity of the tale and the journey the heroine goes on that has made this story endure, and it’s still worth a read, slim volume though it might be.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey: The first book in McCaffrey’s “Pern” series, over four decades old now, still stands up well as an imaginative and interesting creation, its telepathic dragons and celestial menace as solid as they were all those years ago. The relationships between the central characters are touched on a little obliquely, and there may be a shortage of detail for readers accustomed to lengthier fantasy and science fiction epics, but there’s a surprising amount of grit under the fingernails of the setting, with various twists and tricks used to resolve the plot. It’s hard not to get invested in wanting to know more about McCaffrey’s creation, with this story just one slice of a greater history, and indeed the lengthy series of books that continued from this one bears that notion out.

Black Powder War, Naomi Novik: Continuing the process of turning the more-or-less standalone first book into a globetrotting adventure series, Novik delivers perhaps the strongest involvement yet, introducing both a credible nemesis for her dragon-and-captain duo and a genuine sense of desperation. As always, the relationship between the two members of that duo forms the emotional heart of the book, and that relationship continues to evolve in realistic ways as they struggle to return home after the adventures in the Far East of the previous book. It proves amazingly successful as part of a series, both satisfying those who want to know more after the previous installment and whetting their appetites for yet more to come.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, Toby Wilkinson: Not only does Toby Wilkinson manage to cram more than three millennia of history into an admittedly chunk history book, but he does so in a readable and even gripping form. Given the sources available the main focus is on the pharaohs and demystifying the idea of their Egypt as a glittering golden age but the character of Egypt and its people is well portrayed, even if sometimes there’s a feeling of political bias in the history. Even in as sizable a books as this, the occasional leaps of generations within paragraphs are inevitable, but although Wilkinson’s language dos get a bit casual from time to time, this is a great overview of Egyptian history for anyone interested in getting an idea of how it survived from Narmer to Cleopatra.

Films

Arthur Christmas: Just in time for the festive season comes an Aardman animated offering about succession struggles in the Family Claus and the subjugation of an entire race of elves under the North Pole. Well, not really (sort of): this is a polished kids’ film all about “the true meaning of Christmas” in a commercial, technological age, as we tend to see this time every year, and it successfully tugs the heart strings while providing some amusement for adults in the form of Grandsanta’s un-PC comments. It’s a long way from being the best of Aardman’s offerings, and it sags in the middle, but as an honest piece of Yuletide entertainment with some clever touches and too much in the way of product placement, it’s likely to become a fixture on Christmas TV schedules in years to come.

Take Shelter: Anchored by a powerful central performance by Michael Shannon, this tale of a man afraid that he’s slowly losing his mind is strong when it comes to depicting the effect of his affliction on his relationships but loses its way when it explores elsewhere. Shannon convinces as a man who cannot escape his belief that his apocalyptic visions are real, even in the face of a family history of mental troubles, and he has able support from Jessica Chastain as his loving but suffering wife. If the last five minutes of the film were missing, it would be a perfectly crafted and moving film, but as it is, how you feel on walking out of the cinema will depend on your investment in everythng that’s come before.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Guy Ritchie continues his steampunk-and-fisticuffs reimagining of the Holmes stories by throwing Moriarty into the mix and dropping everything that gets in the way of the bromance between Holmes and Watson. It’s not as sharp as the first film, and there are parts that feel distinctly ropey, but everything moves at such a pace that viewers will probably have to wait until it’s done to figure out exactly what might have been bothering them. It’s really nothing exceptional, but as an example of mindless, roller-coaster movie entertainment, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law enjoying themselves in the lead roles, it will do nicely.

Missin Impossible – Ghost Protocol: Brad Bird is the latest director to put his own stamp on the MI franchise, adding a dash of humour and humanity to globe-trotting hijinks and gadgetry and delivering perhaps the most diverting of the films in the series so far. Tom Cruise is at his least smug, and there’s plenty of room for the other members of their team to strut their stuff as a plot that begins with an explosion in the Kremlin careens all over the world, eventually landing in the Far East for a few more explosions. It’s not the best film that anyone involved has ever done, but there are no discernable weak points and the whole thing is well worth the price of admission.