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November Book Reviews

December 15, 2012 Leave a comment

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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.

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October Book Reviews

November 3, 2012 1 comment

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Light, medium and heavy reading.

A quiet month on the book front, due to circumstances about which I’ll be going into more detail anon. The next few months are likely to be just as quiet if not more so on the fiction-reading front, but other things are going to be filling in. So more details on that soon, but for the moment, here are some views on books that came my way last month. (Three of which, by the way, were birthday presents – so thanks John!)

The Boys From Brazil, Ira Levin: A classic of the thriller genre, with the best villains of all – Nazis – pitted against an aging, tired hunter faced with a an unthinkable plot. Levin lays out all the elements of the plot carefully, playing each card at the right time all the way up to the final confrontation. If you’ve seen the movie, then the central twist has already been revealed, but knowing it hardly spoils the book, and in fact the book even explores its ramifications more deeply, though the very last page might be a little too cliched.

Revolution 2.0, Wael Ghonim: A personal memoir of the revolution that toppled Egypt’s government in January and February 2011, told by the Google marketing executive who inspired much of it, this is an eye-opening tale of just what can be achieved through social media. Despite his post at Google, Ghonim’s point of view is a solidly Middle Eastern one, and his revolutionary activities were born out of a love of his country and a desire for justice—two traits that saw him abducted just as the revolution was reaching its height. This is a personal story rather than a blueprint for similar activities elsewhere, and it is unapologetically focused on Egypt, but anyone who is interested in how governments and the Internet are likely to interact in years to come, it’s a must read.

Doctor Nikola, Master Criminal, Guy Boothby: The tales of Doctor Nikola, a gentlemanly criminal mastermind, and his more rough-and-tumble adversaries and compatriots, were exceptionally popular in their time, and two of them are collected here. Boothby’s prose has not dated as well as some, and his action is now too reserved for pulpish excitement and his writing too stilted to get anywhere near the imprimatur of serious literature. However, as a window into British Victorian attitudes and a snapshot of a world where there was still adventure and mystery beyond the horizon, it’s a fascinating diversion.

Charles Dickens: A Life, Claire Tomalin: England’s most representative author gets a thorough going-over from Claire Tomalin, revealing the exceptional talents and the the darker corners of someone who did his best to live up to his own legend. Splitting her attention more or less equally between the man and his works, Tomalin isn’t afraid to point out where Dickens fell short, and indeed she does so with such regularity that you have at times to wince for a man who was protective of his own reputation in his lifetime. Yet with all his flaws and failings, Dickens still manages to come through as someone deserving of his status, and this is an exceptionably readable portrait of a man of genius and the world he inhabited and depicted with unsurpassed skill.

July Book Reviews

August 4, 2012 Leave a comment

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Nothing to do with books, just a visual representation of my state of mind.

In the absence of anything resembling a summer, it was no hardship to retreat into a few good books (and at least one not so good). Wholly fiction this time out, if with a hint of history in some of the pieces reviewed. Plus, my first review of a graphic novel and a stand-out piece at that.

The Betrayal, Helen Dunmore: In the years after World War II, a Leningrad doctor and his family find themselves caught up in the politics of paranoia and fear, where the desire to be a good human being comes into conflict with the need to protect oneself and those one cares about. Deeply researched, this is a very human story taking place in a world that feels entirely genuine, from the daily lives of those surviving in the last days of Stalin’s reign to the constant fear of the political apparatus that surrounds them and crushes those that come to its notice. It never hits the heights of drama, but that’s not really the point: this is a human story of endurance and patience, one in which the small victory of surviving is enough to overcome the terror of being mangled by the machinery of an oppressive state.

Seven Days in New Crete, Robert Graves: Cast into a future utopia founded on Goddess worship and occult social control, a poet finds himself the catalyst for the introduction of evil as a force for change. Writing in the wake of WWII, from the perspective of a veteran of WWI, Graves is clinical as he cuts into the notion of how ensuring the best of all possible worlds can’t account for the imperfections and the desires of the human heart. His vision of a future grown stagnant in its peaceful compacency is a chilly one, even as it builds towards a frenzied climax, but it’s the voice of the observer who comes to understand the world he finds himself in even as he begins the process of its disintegration that makes this worth reading.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: Charting a spiral course through the lives of an interconnected group of characters, Egan’s novel constucts a web-like frame on which she hangs the struggles of those characters to connect, comprehend and survive everything that life throws at them, as well as their decisions to maintain their masks or reveal their fragile selves. That unusual structure provides much of the life for this novel, which paints its characters in humour and desperation as they strut their brief moments on the stage before stepping into the background of someone else’s tale. It’s an easy book to become attached to, and it’s over all too soon.

Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks: Returning to the Culture, his galactic society of hyper-intelligent AIs and adventurous and occasionally lost humans and aliens, for a tale of war, revenge and heaven and hell, Banks proves himself in fine, if somewhat light, form. The central conceit of artificially constructed hells and a war fought over the moral right to destroy them interweaves with a woman seeking revenge for her own murder, but this is a romp with disturbing overtones rather than an exploration of deeper themes. Tinged with more Adamsian touches than usual, particularly in the form of a warship AI absurdly delighted at the opportunity to exercise his gifts, but this is a fine addition to the series of Culture novels in its own right, albeit one where the whimsy occludes the admittedly heavy subject matter.

Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: Brubaker and Phillips are one of the finest writer-artist teams in comics, and this beautifully presented collection of three interwoven tales of betrayal and secrets among the criminal fraternity is a fantastic introduction to their oeuvre. Damned by their own pasts, the protagonists of the three tales may be the most moral of the characters inhabiting their shared world, but that’s a relative term, and the world of the lawless that they inhabit is one where no-one has clean hands and the spark of hope is always at risk of being snuffed out by someone more brutal or better prepared to step beyond the bounds of the unthinkable. Phillips’ scratchy, yet solid, art perfectly matches Brubaker’s terse dialogue and descriptive narration, and together they create a world of dark corners and filthy alleys that’s impossible not to get sucked into.

Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock: Delving back deeper than Tolkienian fantasy, Holdstock works with the clay of primal mythmaking as he crafts a tale of a family whose encounters with the last vestiges of chilly antiquity change them utterly. Steeped in British folklore and spanning the human imagination from the last ice age to the second world war, this is a story in which the very human emotions of love and loss are rooted in and sometimes overwhelmed by the unconscious need to craft stories out of the world that surrounds us. Deservedly a modern classic of the fantasy genre, it’s a fascinating read, dominated by the stunning creation of the myth-infused world that lies within a single scrap of primeval woodland.

The Bone Hunters, Tom Holland: When one of your leading characters is a “naive but wilful heiress,” you know that you’re in for a traditional romance, for all that the setting is the Bone Wars between palaeontologists in 19th century U.S., amid the blood and recrimination of the Indian Wars. So it proves to be, though that’s a far less important sin for this book than the kludgy language and the choice of the author to mark every encounter and glance between two characters with at least three paragraphs of insight, flashback and emotional resonance. There’s an interesting story here, one with historical resonance and clever use of its setting, but it’s buried very, very deeply by the language and syntax, and I’m still not altogether sure it was worth unearthing it.

June Book Reviews

July 2, 2012 Leave a comment

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A slice of bookshelf, from Malory to Moore

Another month that seemed to be heading down a quiet path as far as book reading went was turned around by a lazy weekend at the parents’ place, which allowed me to polish off three titles. I guess there’s something to be said for having a few days where you attempt to merge with the couch through osmosis…

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Night of Knives, Ian C. Esselmont: A stand-alone story set in the world of Steven Erikson’s “Malazan” tales, this is almost as dense in terms of detail as that series, which is to be expected coming from the setting’s co-creator. Set over the course of a single night, it provides a meaningful chunk of backstory to Erikson’s opus, and as a result is probably required reading for diehard fans of the Malazan books. However, it’s not quite as wild and baroque as the series it springs from, and in the course of a single book it cannot explain all the elements of the world that it draws upon, leaving it solely for fans, perhaps.

At Swim Two Birds, Flann O’Brien: Irish myth and folklore twist together with the bluster and verbosity of Irish pub conversation in a surreal, multi-level narrative. Telling multiple stories at various levels, vaguely centered around an author trying to wrangle his recalcitrant creations, it’s filled to the brim with poetically wordy digressions and strange depictions of the wild and the weird of the tiny green island it sprang from. Deeply erudite, constantly playful and Irish in a way that few other books are, even as it launches volley after volley of affectionate digs at the cliches of Irishness, this is a book that demands a lot of the reader but packs more than enough in to reward (if not require) multiple readings.

Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland: The title of the book is the kicking-off point for a meditation on the meaning of life, mediated through the experiences of five friends and the few others who come to share their lives as they face the banal apocalypse of adulthood. There’s a vein of weirdness running through the book that comes to overwhelm it towards the end, but the author keeps a careful eye on the point he’s making, and even amid the strangest occurrences the characters remain true to themselves, if not necessarily true to life. Some readers won’t like the overly preachy tone of the last few chapters, but this is a thoughtful book, casting a jaundiced eye over the modern world and comparing its meaningless pursuit of prosperity to a wasted maturity after the promise of childhood.

Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie: The First Law series of books comes to an end in suitably bloody, ambiguous fashion, with deaths aplenty and destiny revealed to be the inevitable result of choices made by the person affected and those who’ve treated them as pawns. Fittingly, there’s a real sense of returning to where the story began, even as all the secrets and lies laid down before are exposed, leading to results that are all the more satisfying for being unexpected. Joe Abercrombie spots the landing perfectly, even taking the time to have a dig at the fantasy genre and provide plenty of skewed humour amid the blood and gore.

Snuff, Terry Pratchett: At this stage in the author’s career and his long-running Discworld series, there’s a real comfort in revisiting a very familiar setting, but this is Pratchett, and underneath the comfort there’s the steel point of an author who still has things to say. The humour in the newest tale of Sam Vimes, policeman to the bone no matter how high he rises in society, is obvious here, cutting there, but it wouldn’t matter a damn if it weren’t as well-constructed a story as ever, populated by characters who always remain just the right side of caricature. The writing isn’t as sharp as it once was, and the Discworld series has moved far beyond its knockabout roots to warmly told tales of injustice thwarted, but so long as Pratchett keeps issuing invitations to this unique world, I for one will continue to visit.

Dry, Augusten Burroughs: The memoir of an alcoholic trying to go sober in the face of a life that seems to be doing its best to drive him to drink, this is an occasionally hilarious but mostly scouring look into the mind of an addict. An ad exec in New York, Burroughs is at his funniest before he’s forced into rehab, an experience that leads him to confront the reasons for his behaviour and learn whether or not he’s capable of going dry. The degree of self examination can be wearying at times, but there’s no self pity to be found here, just an self awareness that’s at times completely raw.

April and May Book Reviews

June 7, 2012 Leave a comment

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A small slice of bookshelf…

Two months worth of book reviews in one post – I fell behind in my reading in April and only caught up last month. Still, what I did read I mostly enjoyed.

April

Strip Jack, Ian Rankin: An early tale of Rankin’s dour, dogged detective John Rebus, Strip Jack rings with authenticity as it depicts Rebus’s Edinburgh haunts, but in having its central mystery revolve around the doings of that city’s upper crust, it loses a lot of its weight. The central crime is appropriately twisty, but it never feels quite dark enough, and Rebus’s own troubled personal life has at least as much heft. The sharpness of the writing, especially Rankin’s ear for dialogue and the cutting line, as well as the fully-drawn character of Rebus himself, still make this a more than rewarding read.

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs: One of the founding texts of the now mostly defunct space romance genre, this is an old-style adventure that barrels along at a furious pace, never afraid to stoop to contrivance or convenience in its efforts to get to the next cliffhanger or climax. John Carter is an able and sympathetic romantic hero, marooned on Mars/Barsoom by a mechanism that amounts to authorial handwaving but swiftly adapting to his new surroundings with a verve that a modern reader might decry as wish-fulfillment if it weren’t all so much fun. You’d have to be hard-hearted indeed not to get caught up in Burroughs’ planetary adventure, with its barbarians, princesses, ancient cultures and strange mysteries, and when you reach the end of the breathless ride, you might just find yourself eager for another.

May

The Black Book, Ian Rankin: Following on from Strip Jack, Detective Inspector John Rebus returns with an altogether darker and more satisfying dive into the grimy criminal underworld of Edinburgh. Not only is Rebus himself at his dogged, incisive best, but his supporting cast stand up well to him and the array of ne’er-do-wells he navigates in chasing down the leads in a long-cold murder case are colourfully drawn. Few characters get out without some blood on their hands, and none of them (with the exception of Rebus himself) come across as being guaranteed to make it to the final page.

Mortal Causes, Ian Rankin: The blood and grim purpose of the conflict in Northern Ireland intrudes into the Edinburgh of John Rebus, further darkening an already bleak depiction of the city. A little of Rebus’s own past is also revealed, suggesting some of the demons that haunt him, and he remains a thoroughly flawed protagonist, yet admirable in his unstated insistence on pursuing the unjust into whatever corners they have chosen to hide. Rebus’s world is further deepened by the use of threads from previous novels, and the cast surrounding him are almost as well written as he himself is.

Winter King, Thomas Penn: The repressive, paranoid reign of the first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII, is depicted in epic detail, from his early years in exile to the chaotic scenes that accompanied his death. As much a portrayal of the kingdom Henry created as of the man himself, it’s a fascinating retelling of his efforts to bind together a kingdom and pass it on to his son in the face of rebellion, conspiracy and personal tragedy. With a cast of hundreds, it can sometimes prove tricky to keep track of all the players in this game of court intrigue, but for anyone with an interest in English history, this is a must.

The History of England Volume 1: Foundation, Peter Ackroyd: Speaking of English history, this is an entry in the “magnum opus” corner of the history section of the library, as Ackroyd attempts to chart the history of the English nation from the earliest settlers onwards. It’s a tale full of digressions, and Ackroyd regularly gives his writerly side free rein to express itself as he picks his way through the bones of England’s past, unearthing odd gems and revealing rarely seen sides of otherwise familiar stories. His habits of passing judgement on everything he sees and ending nearly every section with an enigmatic hint or a witty bon mot get somewhat repetitive, but there’s plenty of information in here to keep a reader fascinated.

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

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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.