April 04, 2016

Vignette Number 1

Isaac Asimov, more than anyone, introduced me to imaginative thinking. I watched Star Trek, and Doctor Who of course on TV when I was very young, but it was when I started reading real science fiction books that I think my interest turned serious.

I was eleven years old, and had just started at a grammar school in the nearest big town to me, Coleraine. It was a long bus ride, which gave me plenty of time to read. If I missed the normal bus home, due to after school clubs or sports, I could walk through town to the station, and wait for the next one.

I found a second-hand bookshop, and began missing the bus more and more. It was a small place, and sadly is gone now, but the owner got to know me, and even when I was grown up and living in England, when I returned with my family I made a point to pop in and buy a book from him.

My first purchase was "Nine Tomorrows" by Isaac Asimov. I can't remember why I picked it now. I knew his name as a giant of science fiction literature that's for sure. It is an anthology of nine stories, so maybe I was attracted by that - I still like short science fiction probably more than longer novels. The cover is fairly typical of the times. It shows a massive spaceship, in what looks like a junk yard, with the crescent moon in the twilight sky behind.

Looking through the story names, they are familiar to me even now. without prompting I can only remember the details of two, but one story I remember very well indeed.

"The Last Question" is widely regarded as Asimov's best story, and it is his own favourite too. It gets included in many lists of greatest science fiction stories, and rightly too. I think I was really lucky to start at the top when I bought this book.

I won't describe the plot, though I urge you to seek out the story and read it for yourself. What I will say about it is that it posits a future of high technology, which I very much liked. Computers existed of course, but this story included a timeline reaching far into the future where they would become more intelligent and powerful. I might have decided right there than my career would be in this profession.

The key point though, is the optimism, which along with his prolific writing, his breadth of subject matter, was one of Asimov's trademarks. Entropy is widely regarded as irreversible, and a direct consequence is what has come to be known as the 'heat death' of the Universe (basically, everything will end. Everything). This won't have any effect on me, or you, or our children, or any human being that will ever life most likely. But it
is troubling nevertheless to think, as Douglas Adams would write in "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", would you "raise families, strive for new and better societies, fight terrible wars for what you know to be right..." if you knew that in the end, the Universe just dies?

Asimov finds an optimistic take on that piece of existential dread. I know I found this very comforting, and brought it up later in many late night drunken conversations in university dorm rooms and bars.

So Asimov opened my mind to a really big idea, in this story, and to plenty of others too, like the simple Three Laws of Robotics, which turned out, when you actually analysed them, to make for a whole heap of trouble in the interpretation. He was ambitious for a technologically better world, and fully expected science to make all our lives better.

I was, and still am, infected by this optimism. I imagine, like he did, a future where we don't have to work except if we enjoy it, where power is free and no one needs to be hungry. And of course, I don't worry much about the end of the universe any more.

Posted by se71 at 11:02 AM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2012

Filler

Just a filler entry to see if this is still working. Wow, can't believe it's two years since I updated, and longer than that since I wrote anything real.

This update is mainly to thank Kimbofo for the kind mention on her Blog.

Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibden is a great book, and it is so long since I read it, I think I might just read it again. I did try one of his serious crime books, but didn't make it all the way through it - something that is quite unusual for me.

Posted by se71 at 02:59 PM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2010

2009 Review - Books

Books

I read 21 books in 2009. Here is the list

The Ghost - Robert Harris
Martians, Go Home - Fredric Brown
Esio Trot - Roald Dahl
Just After Sunset - Stephen King
We Think, Therefore We Are - ed. Peter Crowther
Old Man's War - John Scalzi
Brother Odd - Dean Koontz
The Ghost Brigade - John Scalzi
Shock - Richard Matheson
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larson
Shock III - Richard Matheson
The Last Colony - John Scalzi
Random Acts of Heroic Love - Danny Scheinmann
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
The Phantom Tollbooth - Norton Juster
Zoe's Tale - John Scalzi
Double Act - Jacqueline Wilson
The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larson
House of Suns - Alistair Reynolds
Flash Forward - Robert W Sawyer
Bad Science - Ben Goldacre

Outstanding find of the year is the Swedish author Stieg Larson, who sadly died not long after completing his 'Millennium' trilogy of crime novels. I'm currently working my way slowly through the final volume - slowly, because I know there will be no more.

John Scalzi wrote a great book called "Old Man's War" - then followed it with sequels of ever decreasing enjoyment, culminating in the final insult - "Zoe's Tale" - a book which tells the exact same story as the previous entry in the series, from a slightly different point of view. that idea can work, but needs a lot of skill. It didn't work here.

"The Hunger Games" is a real standout. It is teen fiction, but very well done, very gripping right from the beginning.

My last pick of the year is "Bad Science". Ben Goldacre's book is a must read for anyone wanting a little perspective on how we are being sold so much science crap by the media. Full of interesting facts about MMR, MRSA, homeopathy and why the Daily Mail seems to be categorizing every substance known to man into either the cancer curing or cancer causing camp.

Posted by se71 at 01:51 PM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2009

Library Fines

The "worrying statistics" that books borrowed have fallen by 41% over the last ten years is not something that surprises me. I'm one of those people who has stopped going.

The Guardian further asks the question: "Yes, I am thinking about how LoveFilm or Amazon work. What is it about their way of doing things that generates such popularity, wide usage, such customer delight and satisfaction?"

It is obvious to me why - no fines.

I keep trying to use the library, but inevitably I am either away from home at the weekend, or for some other reason forget to renew my books. Then, when I do go back, I pay several pounds per book in fines. If you are also encouraging children, taking back a bag full of late books is a scary proposition. Best not bothering with the constant worry of "When are the books due back" and just get a few second hand ones from Oxfam. We have busy lives - libraries are hard to get to with their obscurely planned opening times (ours closes at 3pm on Saturdays - what is the point of that?). I really want to use the library, but it's a real effort to get there when it is open, and a missed visit means losing money, so why put myself through the pain?

What is wrong with the business model Lovefilm follow? They let me keep a film or two at home at all times, and only allow me to get a new one when I take the old one back? There are no fines, no worries, and I always have something I want at home.

Libraries need to be more friendly, more open. If I have to pay £3 to return a tatty paperback a few days late, I am not going to be predisposed to borrowing anything again.

Posted by se71 at 09:02 AM | Comments (2)

June 12, 2009

15 Books

Via pfig, though on his FB page.

"Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes."

1. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
2. Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban
3. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
4. South Sea Adventure - Willard Price
5. A Pocket Full of Rye - Agatha Christie
6. Puppet on a String - Alastair MacLean
7. Strange Stories Amazing Facts - Reader's Digest
8. The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
9. Watership Down - Richard Adams
10. Immortality Inc - Robert Sheckley
11. Nine Tomorrows - Isaac Asimov
12. Going Long - Joe Friel
13. Use of Weapons - Ian Banks
14. Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
15. Catch 22 - Joseph Heller


A lot of these are 'firsts' in some way. A lot are about dying. Make of that what you will. Let me know if you need any further illumination.

This only took me less than 5 minutes to compile - I think about books a lot. List subject to change depending on what mood I might be in.

Posted by se71 at 08:56 AM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2009

Just After Sunset - Stephen King

Just After Sunset - Stephen King

I'm a big Stephen King. This is even though he has disappointed me a lot over the last twenty years. I still keep coming back. Partly it is because even though his later books are sometimes a bit pointless and lack direction, the journey is often enjoyable because he is such a good writer.

The rot set in in about 1985 when I bought the hardback of Skeleton Crew, a book of short stories. I couldn't afford it, but had to have it. I was really disappointed with the quality of the stories - the first time I hadn't liked something King had written. His short stories before this had been superlative. They included classics like "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" and "The Body", from Different Seasons and both made into very famous films. The earlier collection, Night Shift was also responsible for a few films, but the stories are all good.

After that, I didn't give up. As I said, I'm a bit of an addict. I also read the collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes. I can't remember much about it, just that it wasn't that great. There were no stories that I cared much for.

Therefore I wasn't much bothered when "Just After Sunset" came out. I would probably have read it at some point, but I got the hardback for Christmas, and decided I may as well give it a go. I'm not going to describe any of the stories - I see little point in doing that for a short story collection review. What I will say is that these stories are a lot stronger than anything I've read by King for years. Some are horror as you'd expect, but the strongest I think are pure thriller. What many people, I guess the majority in fact, don't know about Stephen King is that he has a rare ability to write stories of pure emotion. His horror gets the most press, and his films are more famous than his books. But he can write about people and situations , and make you care about them, in a way I seldom encounter. This is the real reason I read his books. He only manages to do this in this book once - but once is enough.

Highly recommended, not every story hits the mark, but almost all are well worth reading.

Posted by se71 at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

Esio Trot - Roald Dahl

Esio Trot - Roald Dahl

Not sure how I avoided reading this short book over the years. Maybe I instinctively knew it wouldn't really be worth the, admittedly small, effort.

This is not a typical Dahl book. There is an inventiveness about it, and it's surely original, but it doesn't have any of the gruesome, hilarious, horribleness we have come to expect. Instead, we have a love story about two middle-aged people who are brought together by a trick with tortoises.

Only read if you must finish all of Dahl's books - even though it is short, it's only one idea, and you know the ending already by about one quarter of the way in.

Posted by se71 at 10:13 AM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2009

1000 novels everyone must read: Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Guardian finally reached the part of their 1000 novel list that I was interested in, SF.

Here is their website.

I've only read 30 of the 124 books listed. It's a good list though, someone with a real clue wrote it. Obviously some classics are missing and some should be removed, but any list is not going to please everyone. There are several I've never even heard of. I will be writing far more about this list later, watch this space.

Here is the list in an easily digestible format, marked with an X are the ones I've read.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) X
Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951) X
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984) X
Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987) X
Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987) X
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
Greg Bear: Darwin's Radio (1999)
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956) X
Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992) X
Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960) X
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)
Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) X
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) X
Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
Arthur C Clarke: Childhood's End (1953)
GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) X
Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Umberto Eco: Foucault's Pendulum (1988)
Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001) X
Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)
William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984) X
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974) X
M John Harrison: Light (2002)
Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) X
Frank Herbert: Dune (1965) X
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980) X
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
Stephen King: The Shining (1977) X
Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994) X
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954) X
Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006) X
Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004) X
Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) X
Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970) X
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Flann O'Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000) X
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) X
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989) X
Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992) X
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889)
Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895) X
HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898) X
TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Posted by se71 at 10:07 AM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2009

The Ghost - Robert Harris (Review)

The Ghost - Robert Harris

My first book of 2009, and not a promising start. His first book "Fatherland" appealed to the alternate history nerd inside me, and wasn't a bad detective story. But this is a watery, weak affair that seems to stumble along trying to find excitement, and even when there is some, it manages to turn the volume down and play it in slow motion.

The narrator/hero of this story is a ghostwriter by profession. I don't think we ever get to know his name, which is a clever trick by Harris - ghostwriters of course are never mentioned on the covers of the books they have 'written'.

He gets the job of writing the autobiography of former Prime Minister of Britain, Adam Lang. The previous person who tried to do this drowned, suicide assumed, but we know that it must be a suspicious death.

Lang and his wife are obviously grotesque parodies of Tony and Cherie Blair, which oddly enough makes this book less interesting rather than more.

So the writer goes to Martha's Vineyard to meet Lang, and spends a short time interviewing him as a political crisis looms. Gradually he uncovers irregularities in Lang's past, and starts to wonder whether his life may be in danger too.

It sounds like a good book, but it's clumsily handled. Characters are cardboard cutouts, and perform randomly as the plot requires. I was reminded of the author Frederick Forsyth for some reason as I read through; it seems like his kind of plot, and I wished someone with his skill had tackled it instead.

Buy it here, or not, whatever. I'd advise against it.

Posted by se71 at 05:01 PM | Comments (0)

December 31, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - December 2008

My final two books of the year were

39. World War Z - Max Brooks
40. A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

So you can see, I didn't make it to 52 :-(

I'll do a full year review post (when I get enough tuits, the round ones) but the jist of it was that I stopped commuting by train, and lost ~eight hours reading a week. Without giving up other things in the evening and weekend, I was lost.

The last two books were really fun to read. "World War Z" was a great zombie novel, which postulated what would happen to the world if zombies really did exist. Then "A Game of Thrones" rounded the year off with some more epic fantasy.

Posted by se71 at 11:45 PM | Comments (0)

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

Book 40 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

This is my final book for 2008 - so you know I didn't make it to the full 52. This is a shame, but I didn't know I'd lose four months of train commuting, so it wasn't to be helped. Nevertheless, this is I think ten books more than 2007, so I'm very pleased about that. I'm still cycling to work, so 2009 is looking like a 20 book year. We'll see, maybe I'll get a new contract.

How many epic fantasy series can one person read? When each book is about 1000 pages, and authors insist on upwards of ten books, it is a real struggle. You need to choose carefully. I read "Magician", the first in the Riftwar series by Raymond E Feist not that long ago. it was OK, but I didn't feel inclined to continue. Robert jordan's "Wheel of Time" books get a lot of bad press, particularly the later ones. I don't know much about any other series, but this one from George R.R. Martin gets universal acclaim, so I felt it was time to start. for anyone interested, I only just managed to finish it in 2008, at about 30 minutes to midnight, and it took me a couple of months to get through it, a chapter a night.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is really brutal. If it was a film, you'd maybe want to look away occasionally, or have a sick bag handy. Human life is cheap in this medieval society, justice is swift, and it doesn't pay well to be a woman, even a rich one.

The second thing is the almost complete lack of fantasy. There is a bit of course, and heavy hints for more to come in succeeeding volumes no doubt, but this is primarily a book about the politics of ruling a large kingdom when the people in charge all hate each other.

I did enjoy reading this. You get a total immersion feeling from the world you are inhabiting. There is a big cast of characters, and the chapters flit between them giving you views of the situations from all angles. The country itself seems to be about the size of England. In the north, it is freezing all the time and a huge wall has been built across the northern part country to keep the Others/Wildings out. What are the Others? I'm still hardly any the wiser. The climate is variable, but it seems that every ten or twenty years a mini ice age occurs. No one can predict exactly when it will happen, but in the time of the novel, it is overdue, and definitely imminent. Winter is coming.

Any epic fantasy without battles, heroic deaths, treachery and deceit and all those good things would be pointless, so we're not disappointed in those areas. But it is reallllly long, and there are so too many characters that it is easy to get lost a bit along the way. The narrative shifts from person to person and each has their own individuality that you come to recognise, but the bit players, all the knights and outlaws and so on, merge into one at times.

This book is merely a prelude to the ones to come, like a pilot episode of a long running TV series. It introduces the cast and sets the scene for all the shows to come. And it has a great climax to get you to come back for more. I'll be back.

Posted by se71 at 11:30 PM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2008

World War Z - Max Brooks

World War Z - Max Brooks

Book 39 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

Finishing off the year with a couple of books that go back to the basics of some good old SF/Fantasy/Horror. First off, this one, which all the cool kids have been reading, and I've looked forward to since I first heard about it in the spring. Coincidentally, Penny Arcade also featured it while I was reading it - here in a funny cartoon.

What would happen to the world if zombies were real? I do not think this is a disaster scenario that the United Nations are considering, but no need, Max Brooks has it covered.

This is a clever story told from the point of view of the survivors of a World War against zombies. Some of these are ordinary people, some soldiers, and they come from all four corners of the world, from China to Israel; Cuba to Australia.

Every story is in the form of an interview, and each interview follows chronologically if not geographically on from the last. It begins with a doctor who discovered the first outbreak in a remote Chinese village. As the infection spreads, interviewees come from neighbouring countries, until the whole world has to deal with the zombie horde.

I was worried a bit about the detailed political and military knowledge I might need to follow to get me through the book, and in places it does get a little overwhelming. It quickly switches tack though away from this bigger picture to tell individual stories of survival and heroism - some would be great standalone short stories.

It is a very enjoyable and grizzly read, and a testament to just what you can do if you take one ludicrous idea, assume it is real, and extrapolate from there. I loved the way the zombies, with no mental facilities except the desire for human flesh, walk into seas and lakes and get lost (they don't drown of course, just wander around).
There quite a few neat touches like this.

so, finally, a book that does live up to the hype. Read it.

Posted by se71 at 11:47 AM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - November 2008

I am now certain to fail in my challenge, which is a shame. i've tried this past month to read a bit at my desk at lunchtimes, and managed a few chapters. It's difficult though.

Cycling to work is great, and on the days I do not cycle, my new office is only sensibly reached by car. So no public transport and no time to read.

I am ploughing slowly through a large fantasy novel at home, which I aim to finish before the end of the year. About a chapter a night before I go to sleep.

Nevertheless, here are the two books I completed in November

No Time For Goodbye by Linwood Barclay
Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The Barclay novel is a thriller, and not that bad, considering it is a Richard and Judy bookclub book. High literature it is not, but it was easy to read at my desk

Coraline I read to my daughter as a bedtime story. It worked well like that, and we both enjoyed it, and are now looking forward to the release of the film adaptation next year. Once again though, I struggle to see just what it is about Gaiman that people love.

Posted by se71 at 01:10 PM | Comments (0)

November 30, 2008

Coraline - Neil Gaiman

Coraline - Neil Gaiman

Book 38 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

Bored of the usual kids books, this promised to be a bit more exciting, and possibly scary, so I chose it to read to my daughter. It also helped that I knew a full length feature film is coming up very soon.

It's quite a spooky story, about a bored little girl who finds a doorway to another world where cats speak, and she has another mother and father who promise to make her life more fun if she stays with them.

There are some nice images, particularly the other mother's black button eyes. There is also a small cast of very colourful characters. Like the Wizard of Oz, these characters have their real and other world equivalents.

I liked it more than I thought I would, and remember it better than I expected to. It is quite insidious in the way it tunnels into your mind, clever. The storytelling was a big success too. Looking forward to the film.

Posted by se71 at 11:01 AM | Comments (0)

November 16, 2008

No Time For Goodbye - Linwood Barclay

No Time For Goodbye - Linwood Barclay

Book 36 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

Sometimes a book is so heavily promoted it's almost impossible for me to resist reading it. This thriller is a Richard and Judy book club pick. High literature it is not, but it was easy to read at my desk.

Some of the online reviews you might see, like the ones at the top of this page on Amazon are way over the top. The reader reviews are a lot more realistic however.

The plot has a great hook - a teenage girl (Cynthia) has a row with her parents and goes to bed, then in the morning her whole family have disappeared, never to return. Did she kill them? Were they murdered by someone else for some unknown reason? Did they just leave - and if so, why did they not take her?

Move on 25 years, and now Cynthia is married with a family, and starts to try and hunt down the truth herself. Lots of ideas, and it is quite fun for a while. But at the same time, it's also quite annoying. The logic is a bit silly. There are a couple of scenes with a medium who Cynthia thinks might help, but this is pointless for her and for us. Her husband seems clever sometimes, yet at others is very dim, all for the sake of the story - if he worked out the answer too quickly what would we do? This is bad, he should be more consistent.

The final chapters wrap things up quite well, and it's not a bad solution. but this is a holiday book, a bit of distraction for an airport lounge, not a great seat-of-the pants thriller.

Posted by se71 at 12:01 PM | Comments (0)

November 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - October 2008

Marginally better than last month, I finished one solitary book in October 2008

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

It was quite good, though not as good as a half hour skim read I had a few years back suggested it might be.


Posted by se71 at 01:07 PM | Comments (0)

October 29, 2008

The Consolations of Philosophy - Alain De Botton

The Consolations of Philosophy - Alain De Botton

Book 36 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

Several years ago I was visiting a friend and this book was on their side table. I picked it up and browsed through it and it looked really interesting. Not interesting enough for me to subsequently pay around £7.99 for it though. Then "The Times" newspaper started a promotion of giving away free books every day. I checked each morning, and amazingly one day this one was the pick, and so I got it free with a 70p newspaper. Bargain.

But unfortunately, the promise of my early browsing experience wasn't fulfilled. I learned quite a lot about philosophers through history, as there are quite lengthy biographies. I learned a bit more than I wanted to about De Botton's sex life. And though I think the consolations promised are in there, the books was too wordy and didn't contain enough lists and bullet points to make them stand out - so I've pretty much forgotten them. This is a shame, because I think a little judicious editing could have helped to emphasise the relevant points he was making. I expected more of a self-help book than a rambling discourse.

Definitely an interesting book about philosophy, but it needed to be a bit more practical for me.

Posted by se71 at 11:31 AM | Comments (0)

October 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - September 2008

Oh dear.

Cycling every day to work, tired in the evenings, and only managing a few pages a day of the four books I currently have on the go. Make that five books.

October isn't looking much better.

No books finished this month.

Posted by se71 at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)

September 14, 2008

A long awaited journey

I've been putting it off, savouring the anticipation. Of course I've seen the novels on the bookshelves, over the last 10 years or so gradually building up into a formidable series. At first, I didn't really know anything about them - George R.R. Martin wasn't that well known to me (I read a science fiction anthology in about 1988 called "Wild Cards" that he edited and provided a couple of the stories for). But the mythos has grown, and everyone who knows anything about fantasy tells me these are the BEST books ever written. So far four are published, and the fans are impatient for the rest. Looking at the author's website it seems I may indeed have a chance of catching up with him before he finishes writing.

So this weekend I gave in to temptation and started "A Game of Thrones", the first part of what may well be seven novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series. At about 1000 pages each, that's a lot of reading.

I'm only about two chapters in, and already I'm enjoying it immensely.

Posted by se71 at 08:23 PM | Comments (0)

September 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - August 2008

This was my last good chance for a while to get some reading done. I'm now commuting to work by bike, and have lost up to 10 hours forced reading time a week. I will have to try and read more in the evenings and weekends to try and make amends for that.

Quake was as depraved a read as I can remember, sort of fun like a slasher movie, but disappointing in it's lack of plot, and I think I won't read any more of Laymon's books now.

Ravenheart was marvellous, part three of the Rigante series which I started only a few months ago. Stormrider, the fourth and final part of this series was really good, but got bogged down near the end with too much military detail. I also feel that it was a set-up for another part, which sadly we'll never now see.

Mystic River is a standard thriller, which tries to be something more, and doesn't quite make it.

Finally for August, a nice short read in the Booker Prize winner Disgrace. Set in turn of the century South Africa, it's a story of one man's fall from grace, and an allegory for the state of the whole country; I didn't like it that much, mostly because I couldn't understand anyone's motives, but also because of the way it just stopped when there was much to resolve.

31 Quake by Richard Laymon
32 Ravenheart by David Gemmell
33 Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
34 Stormrider by David Gemmell
35 Disgrace by J.M. Coetze

Posted by se71 at 03:16 PM | Comments (0)

August 30, 2008

Disgrace - J.M. Coetze

Disgrace by J.M. Coetze

Book 35 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

On my shelf for quite some time - another Booker prize winner. One of my rare adventures into non English/American authors too, as Coetze is South African.

And unsurprisingly, this is a novel about apartheid, or more particularly, the end of apartheid, in South Africa. It would be nice if a foreign author could write an award winning book that wasn't quite so predictably parocial.

The narrative follows an educated middle-aged white man, David, working as a lecturer. He seduces a young student and when caught, is asked to apologise or lose his job. For no real discernable reason he decides to be difficult about this, and ends up on a road trip to visit his single daughter who is working a small farm miles from the city.

While staying with the daughter, David gets to experience the violence and despair of his country, and to understand more about the state of the races and their pecking order in the new South Africa.

OK, doesn't sound too bad from that synopsis, but it's depressing and frustrating. I couldn't realte to any of the people, who reacted differently to any normal person might expect to the situations they were in. Maybe this is really how people are, but Coetze did not make me believe in them.

I hated this book. I hated all the characters in it. I hated it's worthiness. I hated its inconclusive ending. I hated that the characters did things without any clear motivation. Even though it's short, I was still glad to finish this book.

Posted by se71 at 10:33 PM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2008

Stormrider - David Gemmell

Stormrider - David Gemmell

Book 34 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

The final book in the Rigante series of epic fantasies. Though it starts well and is as full of the excellent characters Gemmell is known for creating, I found myself wishing it was over by about 2/3 through. Why? Well it was all to do with the interminable battles. I like a good battle as much as, in fact more than, the next man. But if they go on too long, I lose sight of the intricacies of the logistics and tactics that only a real war general could be expected to follow. So I got lost. But the fighting continued.

It was a bit of a shame for me, as I have loved all the books - even this one up to about the middle of it.

Worth reading only if you've read the other three. Actually, you could get away with just reading "Ravenheart" and "Stormrider", and missing out the first books, "Sword in the Storm" and "Midnight Falcon" - but you'd be a fool to do that.

Posted by se71 at 10:35 PM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2008

Mystic River - Dennis Lehane

Mystic River - Dennis Lehane

Book 33 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

I like a good thriller once in a while - not too many, but when my mind is chock full of lightspeed spaceships genetically enhanced mutants, sometimes I need a break, and I find these kinds of books light relief.

This one hit the spot nicely and was another of my beach reads on my annual holiday. I chose it because I have seen Lehane's name around the bookshops for years, because I've heard good things about the Clint Eastwood movie it was made into, and because it was very cheap in a secondhand bookshop.

"One of the finest novels I've read in ages" says the blurb on the back. Well, let's not get carried away shall we - that reviewer obviously has poor judgement or has made some very unlucky choices in books lately. It's a competent thriller, no more, no less. It tries to be more, tries very hard, and almost succeeds. Maybe the film managed to distil the best parts. Don't get me wrong - it is a good book and I enjoyed reading it a lot. At over 500 pages it isn't short but it kept me going with no flagging.

The story is about three men, who suffered a trauma as boys, and drifted apart. But as adults living in the same neighbourhood, they are all still connected, and become more so when a murder is committed. One man is a cop, another a criminal, both want to solve the crime their way.

It's tense stuff, and you'll be kept guessing what really happened all the way. So enjoyable definitely, like an episode of CSI or Law and Order, but it's no Godfather.

Posted by se71 at 10:44 PM | Comments (0)

August 07, 2008

Ravenheart - David Gemmell

Ravenheart - David Gemmell

Book 32 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

This is book three in the Rigante series. I read the first two earlier in the year, and finished off the series with Stormrider right after this one. Both these were read by a beach in the Caribbean, not that that matters, but it helps explain how I got through them so quickly.

Set a few hundred years after the previous adventures, the heroes tales are almost legend to the people of the Rigante. we're still in a feudal setting, with warriors and a bit of magic. We get a brand new hero in Jaim Grymauch who is almost a match for Druss himself.

As usual, Gemmell delivers. Unfortunately, the connections to the previous books are a bit too thin to make it a proper series in my eyes - but that is a very small criticism.

Posted by se71 at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

August 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - July 2008

Only 3 books this month. The Kingsolver was recommended by a friend, and I loved the first 2/3 a lot - really worthwhile. It waned a bit after that, but was a very good read overall. Steinbeck I've had on my list forever, and it was good to finally tackle this giant - a very interesting and well written book. Alice Munro is on pretty depressing form, always good with her short stories, but it would be nice if she would lighten up occasionally.

August might be better, two weeks on the beach to read, but what to take? If I take War And Peace, I'll probably not finish it. Decisions, Decisions.

28 The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
29 Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck
30 The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro

Posted by se71 at 07:35 PM | Comments (0)

Quake - Richard Laymon

Quake - Richard Laymon

Book 31 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

I read a fantastically funny/creepy/perverted horror book by Richard Laymon called "Island" many years ago. I've tried a few others over the intervening years, but nothing has ever come close to that first one.

Laymon is a great writer and gives plenty of suspense and adrenalin pumping prose, but a novel needs more than that. There is a great big hole in the center of "Quake" which never gets filled in. Why would an earthquake cause people to suddenly turn into murdering savages? A certain amount of looting and pillaging might be expected when it's first realised that the police are far too busy to chase down and catch everyone. In this story, the quake causes masses of people go completely homicidally crazy. But not all of them - many are unaffected.

It is left to the reader to speculate on the causes of this frenzy, but we just do not have enough information. even when you get to the end, and I won't give that away, you haven't enough to go on give any kind of closure to the story. I found this aspect very frustrating.

Some of the action is pretty good, Laymon can build tension and excitement. But a lot of the situations are very contrived and unrealistic. As in the famous comic strip 'Jane' from years ago - the girls seem to lose their clothes for no good reason quite a lot of the time.

Definitely an 'X' rated book, and unfortunately, not a great read.

Posted by se71 at 02:32 PM | Comments (0)

July 29, 2008

The Love Of A Good Woman - Alice Munro

The Love Of A Good Woman - Alice Munro

Book 30 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

I'm a bit behind in my reviews. This always means that the reviews I write are shorter, as it only takes a few weeks for the details to fade, and the character's names too, especially on shorter books that were quick reads. This is exaggerated a lot when it comes to collections of short stories, like this one. I can remember reading the book, and liking the stories, but without leafing through it, or looking it up on the internet, I cannot actually remember one of the stories from it.

So, my review would be something along the lines of "great stories about real life from one of the most popular short story writers alive today". That's a bit lame, I know. Sorry.

Posted by se71 at 01:43 PM | Comments (0)

July 14, 2008

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck

Book 29 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

It's good to read some of the classics. It's even better when they are interesting, entertaingin, and short. This book is all three. Oh, and it's even better if it's a book your child is studying at school, so you can read it together.

I actually know nothing about this novel before I started it. Except that it was set in the depression in America. I always prefer to start a book with a clean slate like that.

This is the story of two itinerant farm workers, George and Lenny. The are travelling from ranch to ranch, trying to save some money to buy a place of their own to settle down in. George is smart, and looks after Lenny, who is mentally disabled Lenny finds it difficult to distinguish right from wrong, and it's mostly his fault that they have to keep leaving their workplaces.

As this is a standard textbook for many schools, much has been written about it, and I wouldn't really like to try and compete with the multitude of criticisms out there. It's a very interesting book that has a lot of action, and some really good tension. It explores many weighty topics, including poverty, racism, friendship, and disability, but in a matter of fact way that never makes the story drag.

I recommend the book highly.

Posted by se71 at 01:20 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2008

The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

Book 28 in my 52 books in 52 weeks in 2008

There are very many books in the world that I will never read, and this could easily have been one of them. The outine isn't promising. An evangelical American baptist minister in the late 1950s decides to take his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo to be a missionary there. So that's religion and history as main topics - not usually my cup of tea.

However, I was talking to a friend about books this came up as one of their favourite, and I was told that I must read it. So I tried to get a copy but baulked at the full price and eventually got it second hand off Amazon. It was thicker than I'd imagined, but I finally made a start, and was glad that I did, as it turns out that it is one of the best books I've read recently.

Each of the females in the family get to tell parts of the story. It starts tantalisingly with Orleanna Price, the wife and mother, writing from 30 years in the future after she has returned home to America. She hints at terrible things that happened, and quickly lures you in so that you cannot stop reading until you find out what it is.

All the first person narratives from the Congo are written by the daughters. Ruth May is only about five years old, Leah and Adah are pre-teen twins, and Rachel is the teenager. After only a few chapters, you can recognise their unique voices from the way they 'talk', and from how they are reacting to life in the jungle. You quicky realise that their father Nathan is a bit unhinged. His mission is not even fully sanctioned by the church, and he refuses to accept any logical arguments on how to live in this new environment, alienating himself from the villagers with entreaties to baptise them in the crocodile infested river.

Emotions run high, and as disaster approaches the tension makes this a real page turner. I found it hard to out this down up to the emotional climax, which is unfortunately only about 2/3 of the way through the book.

If the novel had stopped there I would have been very happy with it. if I was to make a film of the book, I would definitely stop it there. But instead, it changes quite a lot, and turns into more of a history of the Congo region over the succeeding thirty years rather than just a family saga. The politics overwhelms this final stage too much, and though the case against the white man in Afica is pretty strong, I'm sure that the native people are not blameless either. However, America in particular, white people, and men, all get a very thorough bashing, and there are no bad Africans, or women at all, just a few who are corrupted by circumstances and by their colonial overseers. A bit more balance wouldn't have gone amiss. I found this less compelling. It was interesting, and I learned a lot, but I cared a lot less about the characters, and was glad when it finally came to a conclusion, of sorts.

I do highly recommend this book to anyone of any age; it is a marvellous piece of story-telling which you will not forget in a hurry.

Posted by se71 at 11:39 AM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2008

The Bat Tattoo - Russell Hoban

The Bat Tattoo - Russell Hoban

Amazon link to The Bat Tattoo - Russell Hoban

Book 27 in my 52 books in 52 weeks

I do quite enjoy the writing style of Russell Hoban, though I'm sometimes not quite sure any more what else it is that leads me back to reading his fiction. This is a fairly slight love story, about a pair of late middle aged people meeting and gradually connecting. The story has most of the Hoban trademarks; art appreciation and art history, sex, religion, and pleasingly it takes place around the streets of London, many of which I know well.

Rosewell Clark and Sarah Varley are the two main characters. Both are suffering from losses, and through a chance meeting at the V&A museum, along with a few other unlikely coincidences, they start to get to know each other. Clark is an estranged American earning a living making increasingly bizarre wooden sex toys for a mysterious patron. Sarah sells antiques at a market stall in Covent Garden. Some fun is made of the oddities of modern art at a competition in which Rosewell plans to enter a piece of his own.

I guess there is an intelligence here that is lacking in a lot of the books that you'll find in the top ten lists at the local bookstore. Hoban doesn't play with your emotions, he tells thoughtful but honest stories, and never gives easy answers to the philosophocal questions of life, love and death that he asks. The books are easy, and challenging, at the same time. His is a unique voice which I continue to enjoy.

[Note: I found a much better review on the Guardian website here. They like it a lot too.

Posted by se71 at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

June 20, 2008

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

Book 25 in my 52 books in 52 weeks.

Another competent and entertaining science fiction book from Reynolds. Unfortunately, it's not that much more than that. There are not any great concepts in here and no compelling mysteries (well, a little one). It is set in the same universe that a lot of his previous novels have been. This time that action is centered near a planet which has thousands of orbiting habitats. The prefect in the title is a future lawman; part policeman, part judge, not unlike Judge Dredd. He is investigating a crime, where an explosion destroyed one of the habitats. But it's not that simple, of course, with conspiracies going back twenty years that threaten the future of the whole system.

I enjoyed it, but was unconvinced by some of the elements. The prefects are not allowed guns, but do have a weapon called a whiphound which is almost as deadly. A junior prefect makes a change to some computer code, and it is distributed, unchecked, to live systems. This is highly unlikely to take place, but is required by the plot, and so a major story element is nonsense, which annoyed me.

I think the focus on this small area of space was a mistake, and I'm looking forward to the next novel much more ("House Of Suns") as it promises a much larger canvas.

Posted by se71 at 04:14 PM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

Book 24 in my 52 books in 2008

I am a science fiction fan, this is pretty obvious from my book choices. This recent novel won the Nebula Award, and has been nominated for the Hugo award - the top two awards in science fiction. In an attempt to explore new authors, I thought that would be a pretty good recommendation. I was wrong.

Chabon has written a detective story, one which leads from a simple murder, to an international conspiracy, not unlike Dan Brown's Da Vinci code. It's written in the Sam Spade gumshoe tradition, with a detective who drinks too much, smokes too much, has issues with women - you know the scene. He is Jewish, and I should have guessed from the title, but this isn't just a part of his character, it permeates the whole book. Every character is Jewish, the whole plot revolves around Jews, and their religion. Chabon uses a lot of Jewish words without explanation, and also makes up a few new Jewish sounding words, so that I spend a lot of time in the dark about what the hell was going on.

Oh, I did mention is has been classed as science fiction - didn't I?

This is not science fiction. Did Robert Harris's 'Fatherland' get onto the science fiction shelves - No? Like that novel, this is an alternate history book. In Fatherland, also a detective story, Germany wins World War II, and a detective in Germany some years later has to solve a crime. Here, the historical difference is that in 1940 many of the Jews in Europe are relocated to a remote island called Sitka in Alaska, and the Holocaust, though not averted, is reduced. World history is altered in other ways, some quite interesting, but never really explored, only mentioned in passing. In a way, this is a blessing, as the politics of the Israel/Arab/Palestinian situation is complicated enough, so if you don't understand that deeply, then the subtle changes that make it different will not help.

This 'What If' exercise is a device to explore the Jewish condition, to see how Jews would live if they'd been allowed to, and it's just plain boring unless you have some interest in that area. I feel cheated by this book, it was a complete waste of my time.

It is however a clever book, and there is a good detective story trying to get out. Chabon is no fool, he writes well and has interesting characters and relationships. Sometimes his detective hero Landsman gets into some unbelievable scrapes, and even more unbelievably gets out of them again, but that's forgivable in a detective story. I could have liked this a straight detective novel.

But I was sold something else completely, there is no science in this at all. The all pervasive religiousness of the story annoyed me immensely. I know I'm coming across here as anti-Jewish, but I'd feel exactly the same way about any other religion (I read a book by Russell Hoban last year called 'Pilgermann' which had way too much Christianity in it for example). A lot of praise has been given to the book by the SF community as it's a mainstream author who is straying into genre territory. I disagree with this; we have enough good SF authors and books out there; we don't need Chabon, and McCarthy ("The Road") and their like to raise the profile with their brand of SF-Lite.

Posted by se71 at 11:55 AM | Comments (0)

Jonathan Livingstone Seagull - Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingstone Seagull - Richard Bach

Book 23 in my 52 books in 2008

This is cheating somewhat, it's a very short book indeed, and I've read it before (though a very long time ago). I seem to remember quite liking it, and I was looking for something undemanding to read in bed while suffering from an annoying cold, and I saw it on the shelf.

[Spoilers below]

I didn't like it as much this time. I'm older and much more cynical. It seems to be some kind of fable or parable, with heavy religious overtones. The narrative is about a seagull, a special bird, who wants to learn to fly as fast as possible. Spoiling the story totally now, He abandons his flock, and is ourtcast by them, but keeps trying. Eventually he attains a skill so advanced, he visits heaven, and can transcend space and time. He becomes a teacher of other gulls (disciples) who go on to become teachers themselves spreading his word (gospel) to unbelievers (me!)

Actually, not only did I not think it good, I was insulted by it's simplicity. Not only is there all this heaven stuff, but something that annoyed me was that the gull always knew exactly how fast he was flying in MPH - that's a bit of a stretch of the imagination. Maybe not as much as believing in different levels of heaven and moving through the space/time continuum like Doctor Who, but enough to niggle.

I have no idea why this sold over 1 million copies, or why it was made into a film with a concept album/soundtrack by Neil Diamond (which I haven't heard). It's not worth it. But as a piece of 1970s pop culture, and a less than 30 minute read, I guess it has some historical interest.

Posted by se71 at 11:26 AM | Comments (0)

The Steep Approach to Garbadale - Iain Banks

The Steep Approach to Garbadale - Iain Banks

Book 22 in my 52 books in 2008

Another fiction, as opposed to science fiction, novel from Banks. Slowly but surely I'm nearing completing the full set (the SF I'm bang up to date, with just the recent hardback, 'Matter' outstanding).

The beginning is a bit disconcerting, as you try to work out who the book is going to be about, but it quickly settles down and we get the story of a man called Alban, born to priviledge, in a rich family successful through the business of selling a game that is not unlike monopoly.

There are several themes here; Alban's mother's death, the proposal by an American company to take over the family firm, and Alban's lovelife, especially his relationship with his first cousin Sophie. They are all handled interestingly, you feel as if a conclusion will be reached, you enjoy the journey. In short, you feel throughout as if you are in a safe pair of hands, and won't be disappointed. Nor are you. However, I wasn't quite interested enough a lot of the time. Alban didn't seem to ever make his mind up about anything, or have any clear plan, and so it was difficult to get behind him.

His family were a quite a bunch of eccentrics, quite amusingly described, and one scene with Sophie was so well crafted, and had such a deliciously filthy punchline, I got a few looks on the train as I tried and totally failed to suppress my schoolboy sniggers. The whole book was saved by that page in my opinion.

Sometimes I feel as if there ought to be a section in the bookshop for mainstream novels that contain enough sex to be reclassified onto the erotic shelves. Sometimes I think the authors go a bit further than we really needed for the plot. Banks has done it again, here. In fact, it seems to me to be an increasing trend. I think it's lazy writing, and annoying, as I'm not likely to recommend books containing detailed sex to my mum, or my children to read. My 10 year old asked me the other day why books don't have certificates, like films do, U, PG, 12, 15, 18. I had to guess at an answer, which I think is that they are in a way self certificated - the barriers of entry are higher and a child is unlikely to pick up an adult book filled with violence and sex. Even if they start to read it, if they are mature enough to do that, perhaps they are already mature enough for the content. A film has no such barrier - if it's on screen, anyone can see it. This subject is a particular bugbear of mine, one day I'll try and rationalise it all out.

'The Steep Approach to Garbadale' is a fairly traditional novel, well written, slightly flat in a way, but enjoyable and with a few great trademark Banks scenes.

Posted by se71 at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - May 2008

A much better month in terms of numbers, though very mixed in quality.

I finally finished off "The Neutronium Alchemist", which I thought was great. I'm really looking forward to the 1300 odd pages of the final volume, which I promise to read in the next year.

For a complete change in pace, I went to cowboy stories set in Wyoming, which was also great, in a different way.

I wouldn't actually recommend any of the other three books, they were OK, and I always try to finish what I start, but for 'A quite Belief in Angels", I really struggled with that rule. Watchmen is a science fiction graphic novel, which I also found disappointing, and the Banks novel was just an accomplished though unstartling effort from a great novelist (in a way, similar to how I felt about 'Saturday' from Ian McEwan last year)


19 The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F Hamilton
20 Close Range by Annie Proulx
21 A Quiet Belief In Angels by RJ Ellory
22 Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
23 The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

Posted by se71 at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

May 29, 2008

Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Book 21 in my 52 books in 2008

This is a graphic novel, perhaps the most famous one of them all in the comic community, though perhaps not outside of it. This is quite likely to change however when the movie version comes out in the near future. When I found out they were turning it into a film, that was my impetus to finally go and buy a copy after all these years.

Now for the heresy - it's not really very good. I found it slow, plodding, repetitive, fairly dull from a superhero point of view, and its politics were heavy handed and obvious. The artwork wasn't my kind of thing either, being fairly plain, flat, and static; I like more colour, and more realism, unless it's stylised stuff like Frank Miller.

The story is an alternate universe scenario. What if a bunch of fairly normal people decided to become masked crime fighters, vigilantees like Batman, but lacking his gadgets and using mainly their fists. I'm nodding off already. This is what happened in the mid part of the 20th century, until there was a backlash, and most went into voluntary retirement. Now, it's 1985 (around the time the novel was published) and it looks like someone is killing them. One of the heroes, Rorsache, starts to inverstigate, writing notes in his journal, which we get extensive passages from that reveal the history of the Watchmen.

Most of the story is detective fiction. The only real superhero stuff is a character called John, who was in the traditional bizarre accident, and was transformed into an omnipotent being who can transform matter, teleport, and see all time. Pretty impressive stuff, but massively underused.

A kid sits on a pavement reading a comic throughout, and this pirate story is also reproduced, interlaced within the Watchmen story. There seem to be attempts to connect the two, and it was either too subtle for me, or too vague, but I just didn't see the point.

I wish I'd read it in 1985, as the cold war and the politics of the day are heavily featured, and our impending armageddon due to mutually assured destruction seemed a real threat then. I think I would have felt more engaged emotionally. The world's problems have changed, and I'll be interested to see if the film being made now updates the plot to include global warming, or the war on terror, instead.

Overall, I was sad not to have liked Watchmen, as I always thought I would. I was kind of saving it for a rainy day, which was a mistake. As always, I think my creed of less politics, more science fiction, would have helped massively.

Posted by se71 at 09:51 AM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2008

A Quiet Belief In Angels - RJ Ellory

A Quiet Belief In Angels - RJ Ellory

Book 21 in my 52 books in 2008

Another "Richard & Judy" bookclub pick. When will I ever learn? I blame my sister for this one, we both saw it, and thought it looked good, and encouraged each other a bit to read it.

Ellory is trying to write like one of the giants of American literature, like Steinbeck or Hemmingway. He writes long paragraphs of flowery prose, and repeats things again and again, in case he thinks we didn't get it the first ten times.

Yes, I know there were murdered girls, stop telling me their names! It doesn't actually make a difference to the plot to repeat them again and again and again!

And relax.

But he isn't writing "To Kill A Mockingbird" - that's been done already! He's writing a thriller. But even a slow-boiler thriller should be a bit more exiting than this.

OK, back to the plot. It's not actually a half bad story, I quite liked it and it's quite rightly placed firmly in the detective fiction section. Joseph Vaughn is the protagonist, and right at the start we know he has spent his life tracking down a murderer, and shot him in an anonymous hotel. The rest of the book is told in flashback, as Joseph tells us about his harrowing life, and we try to guess whodunnit..

A serial murderer is stalking a small town in Georgia in the Southern United States in the late 1930s. He is killing little girls, ones Joseph knows. Joseph swears to protect the girls, but he fails, and ever afterwards feels overwhelming guilt about it. His life goes from one tragedy to another, becoming almost increasingly bizarre and unbelievable.

Very many authors these days seem to equate volume with quality. There are far too many words here. This needs tightening up. It's also only written from Joseph's viewpoint, so we get no idea about what's happening with the other people. This can work, but I noticed quite a few places where he knew things that happened when he wasn't even there, and his childhood views and vocabulary were far too advanced for his years.

All in all, quite a difficult book to get through, almost worth it in the end to see how the story pans out, but I'd advist not starting it.

next:

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

Posted by se71 at 02:28 PM | Comments (0)

Close Range by Annie Proulx

Close Range by Annie Proulx

Book 20 in my 52 books in 2008

This is a collection of about a dozen short stories, the most famous of which is of course the final one - Brokeback Mountain.

All the tales are about cowboys in Nevada, and you can see Proulx has done considerable research on this, especially the history, as many feature the economics and weather of this part of the world. I'd like to say there is a good mix of comedy and pathos, but if I tell you that the most amusing part of the whole thing is a story about a man freezing to death and having his leg sawn off by someone who wants to steal his boots, you might start to get the measure of the piece.

This is all about tragedy. Rodeo riders get maimed and half killed, car crash victims go mad, people die in the freezing conditions. The depression is unrelenting, and 'Brokeback Mountain" itself is hardly a barrell of laughs, though I'm not giving away anything here in case you still need to see the film.

However, the writing is good, immersive, and I felt I started to get to know these people a bit. I still don't understand them, it sounds like a completely awful and unfulfilling life to choose.

You might be tempted to pick up this volume and just read "Brokeback Mountain". I'd advise against that. It is easily the best story here, but like a good piece of clasical music, where the variations of the themes in the opening movements make the finale even more satisfying, you need to consume the whole thing here to get the full emotional impact.

Recommended, but this is grim, gritty stuff.

next

A Quiet Belief In Angels by RJ Ellory
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

Posted by se71 at 02:03 PM | Comments (0)

The Neutronium Alchemist - Peter F. Hamilton

The Neutronium Alchemist - Peter F Hamilton

Book 19 in my 52 books in 2008

This is the second volume of the massive "Night's Dawn" space opera trilogy. I made a bit of a mistake leaving so long an interval between reading this and "The Reality Dysfunction". Hamilton has provided no synopsys, and you're expected to hit the ground running in terms of plot and characters, and I found that a bit tricky sometimes.

However, I quickly got stuck in for the marathon read, managing maybe 40 dense pages a day. This is challenging stuff, but always interesting and never slow paced. There are always battles, arguments and chases with spectacular ideas and revelations around every page-turn.

But when an author decides they need nearly 3500 pages to tell a story, you have to ask the question, Why? Couldn't some of the slack be cut and still leave all the important stuff? Isn't a lot of it unnecessary filler? And the answer is that I don't think you could here. It's a remarkably complex story, taking place across many star systems in the galaxy.

The story is about a type of very unusual virus. It is discovered and begins to spread in the first volume, and continues apace here. How would a planet cope, or an orbital habitat? You can be sure that there would be more than one way, and several different scenarios are played out here, which is interesting, as well as the interactions between the different 'solutions'.

There are big ideas about death here too, and the religious implications are touched upon a little more than before, but still not that much.

In short, I loved it. I could have read 5 other books in the same time period, but I'm happy with my choice.

next:

Close Range by Annie Proulx
A Quiet Belief In Angels by RJ Ellory
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

Posted by se71 at 11:39 AM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - April 2008

A very slow month indeed, as I expected. This is why I hammered through so many books in the first three months of the year. This month my commuting time was spent on a massive science fiction tome, full details next month.

I only actually finished a single book this month, and it wasn't even fiction.

William Goldman - Which Lie Did I Tell?

This is a book about how to write screenplays, and if anyone knows how to do that, it's Goldman. It's got some great insights, and realistic tips on what you should and and shouldn't do. It's also chock full of anecdotes where he namedrops Hollywood stars like mad.
And did he really write "Good Will Hunting" ? Find out here, maybe :-)

Posted by se71 at 09:02 AM | Comments (0)

April 02, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - March 2008

A slow month, only 5 books, due to starting a large book half way through the month which I'm still ploughing through.

Wings by Terry Pratchett
Excellent conclusion to the funny and interesting children's fantasy series.

Pig Island by Mo Hayder
Quite hard to define, horror thriller perhaps, but not that horrific really, and more, sort of, creepy.

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman
Magnificent SF story about immortal changelings who have been living on earth for millenia amongst us.

Strangers by Taichi Yamada
Ghost story set in modern day Japan. Suffers I think from being strangely translated in places. Very downbeat, but not bad.

The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom
Really terrible morality lecture couched in fiction. At least it's short.


Proper individual reviews are still to write, must get on with that.

Posted by se71 at 02:51 PM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2008

The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom

The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

Book 17 in my 52 books in 2008

A very popular book, no idea why, it's very dull, predictable stuff in the main.

A man dies and goes to heaven. He is told that he will meet five people from his life who will explain things to him. (five, a stupid arbitrary number, which is never explained. What if you lived on a desert island and only ever met one other person?). Once the explanations are over, you, and they, will all be able to move on to another plane of existence.

He duely meets these five people (they're all dead too, of course, and have just been waiting for him). Luckily he is old, and so has many different periods of his life the author was able to utilise, including a spell in the Vietnam war. After each one, we get a 'lesson learned' lifed straight out of a religious self-help book.

Don't waste your time on this sentimental, poorly written rubbish, unless you're really in need of someone telling you that everything will be alright, that everything bad happens for a reason, and that you'll be happy in heaven when you die.

Posted by se71 at 11:25 AM | Comments (0)

March 22, 2008

Strangers - Taichi Yamada

Strangers - Taichi Yamada

Book 16 of my 52 books in 2008

On the lookout for something new, I was intrigued by a very glowing review of this book by a blogger I read.
I didn't think it was a poor book, but I'm a very long way from being as enamoured by it as that reviewer.

This is a ghost story set in modern day Japan. It is an English translation of the Japanese original, and suffers a bit from that in the cheesy dialog. Harada is a 48 year old TV writer, recently divorced, and living alone in an almost empty apartment block. He forms a relationship with a younger woman who seems to be one of the other few residents. Around the same time, he is wandering the streets of his home district when he catches sight of a man who looks like his father. The two strike up a conversation, and Yamada goes back to the man's home, where he meets his wife, who is also the spitting image of Yamada's mother. Both are young, and his parents are dead anyway, so how could they possibly be real.

Weeks go by, and Yamada visits the couple more, but then his girlfriend and ex-business partner start to notice something strange about him.

It's all very sad, and a bit disturbing. Is it real, or is Yamada falling apart. It's difficult to get into this man's mind to understand his feelings and motivations. I'm not sure it's something a westerner can really understand completely without a more thorough knowledge of the Japanese culture.

It's a short book that only took a few days to finish, and yet it has stayed with me.

Posted by se71 at 10:43 AM | Comments (0)

March 11, 2008

Pig Island - Mo Hayder

Pig Island - Mo Hayder

Book 14 of my 52 books in 2008

An author whose books I've seen on the shelves for a few years now. This one was second hand, in good condition and cheap, so I got it.

Horror is a genre I've neglected in my reading recently. No particular reason. I think I've grown out of it a bit. I should do a little research and see if I'm missing anything good.

There are two types of horror story. One is probably more of a violent thriller - 'Silence Of The Lambs', 'Misery' or "Psycho" are examples. In these the fear is driven by real world people and events. Psychopaths, rapists and serial killers are the kind of people in these. They can be very effective indeed, and in fact, can be much more scary than the second kind.

In the other type of story, supernatural creatures and phenomena create the scares. Fear of the unknown is exploited in stories like 'Dracula' and 'Salems Lot', and in films like 'Alien' and 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'.

Some stories like to play with their audience, alternating between paranormal and real, giving the reader a constant guessing game about whether there really is a realistic explanation for the spooky happenings going on. Pig Island is one of them.

In Pig Island, the main narrator is a reporter who makes his living by investigating weird stories, and debunking the ghosts or goblins he doesn't find as hoaxes. He is covering a story on an island off the west coast of Scotland where a strange creature has been spotted in the woods. Is it some kind of bigfoot, or has the strange cult living there summoned the devil or one of his beasts from hell.

He goes to the island and meets the cult, who seem like a peaceful lot, except for one member who lives alone, estranged from the rest. Something terrible happens, and then the pace hots up a bit.

This is quite an entertaining read. The main plot is a bit far fetched, but I what do you expect? There is a weird sub-plot with the reporters wife, who seems to be completely bonkers, and this never really gets resolved properly. Another negative is that is all gets a bit gynecological, with more medical information than I needed to know - if Hayder is trying to gross out her readers, it's worked.

Very readable, but I'm not convinced by the author, and will probably not be trying any more. There are plenty of other authors to try.

Posted by se71 at 06:41 PM | Comments (0)

March 05, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - February 2008

Progress so far in my quest to read 52 books in 2008

February
6. The Woods by Harlan Coben
7. The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C Clarke
8. Animal Farm by George Orwell
9. No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
10. Diggers by Terry Pratchett
11. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
12. First Blood by David Morrell

Good progress, 7 books, easily beating January even though it was a longer month. This was helped of course by me reading mostly quite short ones.

Oddly enough, three of these were books I've read before. This is partly due to me sifting through my collection and cataloging them online (more about that in another post sometime) and fancying revisiting them. I was not disappointed; 'Diggers', 'Animal Farm' and 'First Blood' were all still really excellent.

Posted by se71 at 11:43 AM | Comments (2)

March 04, 2008

Wings - Terry Pratchett

Wings - Terry Pratchett

Book 13 of my 52 books in 2008

This is the third and final book in the Nome trilogy; I quite recently finished number two, 'Diggers', and some of what I wrote about it unsurprisingly also pertains to this volume.

In a nutshell, Nomes are a race of people, living on Earth for thousands of years, but never seen by humans because they are very small, and move very quickly. In the first book, Truckers, two different tribes meet, and steal a truck. In the second 'Diggers', Some of them steal a digger. In this one, there is quite a lot of flying.

If you thought that the first two books were good, then this one will blow you away. It has a much larger scope, much. Masklin, from book one, and some of the store nomes, take the Thing (a black box, which is an ancient Nome computer) on Concord and go to Florida to try and get on NASA's Space Shuttle.

This is a lot of fun, and the Nomes get into plenty of scrapes. There is a neat conclusion where all the Nomes get back together, and we get to learn more about tree frogs.

Posted by se71 at 09:32 AM | Comments (0)

First Blood - David Morrell

First Blood - David Morrell

Book 12 of my 52 books in 2008

I first read this book in the late 1970s. I loved it then, and eagerly waited for the movie. Stallone did a good job, and made a lot of money from the franchise, but he changed too much to my mind, and lost the subtlety that you get from reading. This is understandable, and I guess excusable. I really recommend that you go back to the original text though if you like action, but also like to think intelligently about why it's happening.

Rambo is a decorated Vietnam veteran, drifting from town to town after the war. Teasle is a town cop, a veteran himself of Korea, but a flawed man going through a divorce. When these two encounter each other, the timing is just right for sparks to fly. Teasle doesn't want his neat town disturbed by vagrant troublemakers. Rambo is tired of being moved on for no reason and decides, when Teasle tries to make him leave, that he's had enough.

We get a really good viewpoint of both people, the focus switches almost eqwually between both men and we see how they think. Even from the start we can find ourselves to rooting for both of them, not sure which should overcome. Even though the body count escalates remarkably quickly, it's believable, and almost inevitable.

The conclusion is the only real way events have shaped it to go, and I'm not going to give it away here, but it's both shocking and satisfying.

A truely excellent book, give it a chance. I don't usually push Amazon reviews, but each reviewer there has given it 5 Stars, even those who hated the films.

Posted by se71 at 09:31 AM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2008

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

Book 11 of my 52 books in 2008

I'm a sucker, as I've said before, for reading books that are popular and prominently displayed in the bookshops. This one seemed to be getting good reviews, so even though it was one of "Richard & Judy's" book picks, I gave it a go.

I was also intrigued by the thought of a book narrated by Death, but this is just the SF/fantasy fan in me and Zusak didn't really give me much of a fix in that area. There is little cleverness here in the use of this trick, and in fact, Death is really just what other people would call an omniscient narrator.

How did 'normal' German people react to what was happening in their country during World War II? That could be the story told here,and was what I expected. It works to some extentr, except that there are very few actual normal people. A book full of normal people, and their reactions to extraordinary circumstances is possible, and I would have liked a few more of them. But this is in many ways written like a children's book. The characters are all larger than life, with many episodes constructed for slapstick comedic effect. On the other hand, maybe this is needed in a book otherwise fo full of dreadful themes. That's my main problem with the book; when thinking about it, I hate it, and I like it, and I think some things should be changed, and then I think maybe they are needed after all.

To the story. A young girl called Liesl is the titular Book Thief. She is adopted by a family near the German town of Munich in 1939. Her mother has abandonded her, and her tragically sad journey gives her nightmares for many months.

She soon adapts to the new life, but only really makes one new friend, a boy called Rudy. As 1939 turns to 1940 and onwards, the effects of the war are very strongly felt. There is rationing and everyone is very poor. Lisel is taught to read by her new Papa, and though she cannot afford books, manages to steal some, and these become the only things she treasures. I thought the whole book theme, paradoxically, was the worst part of this novel. It feels contrived and unbelievable.

Many of the shocks the book throws at us are cushioned beforehand. So when a major character is injured or dies (there is a war going on, remember), you are prepared, and it's not quite so upsetting. This gets overdone, and is almost annoying. I think the author is trying not to upset his younger readers.

In summary, I liked it a lot at the end, but many parts were clumsy. It was very readable, and never had a chance to get boring - the 500 pages do fly past. but it's more of a teenagers book probably than an adult one.

[This review has been the most difficult I've written recently, and has actually taken several re-edits to get even close to being finished, and I'm still really unhappy with it. So it goes]

Posted by se71 at 12:43 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2008

Diggers - Terry Pratchett

Diggers - Terry Pratchett

Book 10 of my 52 books in 2008

This is the second instalment of a small trilogy of books that are primarily aimed at children - "The Bromeliad". [1]

In the first, "Truckers", a group of Nomes (small people that live under the floorboards in a large department store) escape from it's imminent demolition by stealing a truck. This is not a mean feat when you're only a few inches tall.

Now they are living in a disused quarry, and in case you haven't guessed, a digger might well be a key part of the plot. Looking forward to re-reading the third one - "Wings", wonder what that will be about :-)

Like all Pratchett's books, this one is funny and clever, entertaining but also with a lot of intelligent things to say about people and the world in general. I first read this trilogy in the early 1990s, and at the time I was struggling with the idea of becoming a fully fledged manager at the company I was working at. These books actually helped me to understand a lot about the nature of leadership believe it or not, and I guess persuaded me I didn't really want it. I left the job soon afterwards.

Highly recommended for children of all ages.

[1] very interesting name for a trilogy - see here

Posted by se71 at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2008

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

Book 9 of my 52 books in 2008

I'm going to have a lot of trouble reviewing this without spoiling the story for you. I'll try, but am not promising anything, so if you haven't read it, or seen the multi Oscar nominated film version from the Coen brothers, then look away now.

This is a bleak story, which starts off violently, continues in that vein, then somehow manages to get even grimmer by the end. If you're looking for some glimmer of hope, some redemption, you're going to be disappointed, because just about everyone loses in one way or another in the end.

It starts off fairly conventionally. A man named Moss finds a pile of money that was supposed to be used in a drugs transaction, and he takes it. The people who own the money want it back, so he goes on the run. A violent psychopath called Chigurh is one of the people chasing him, and this man is one of the scariest people you'll encounter in fiction. The local sheriff tells quite a lot of the story in first person, and the book is really about him. The story however climaxes a bit too soon, and the rest of the book then clears up a few loose ends (though nowhere near all) and judders to a kind of stop.

Like a lot of fiction, the narrative action itself isn't really the thing that's most important. It's what keeps you reading of course, an essay on the topic wouldn't have the same, or anywhere near as large an audience. No, what you'll take away from this is the sense of despair of a man nearing retirement looking at his country falling apart. He looks at the drug related killings, and thinks that things have gotten much worse since he was young. People have changed, the world is going to hell, and there is nothing he can do about it.

McCarthy repeats his prose style from the last novel, "The Road". It's sparse, sort of stilted. People have conversations where they say things without really saying them. And there are no quotation marks so it gets very tricky to tell sometimes who is saying what. There are whole scenes where you have to pick up clues to know who they are about, which is a bit annoying, and I found myself rereading several pages once when I realised I'd gotten it completely wrong. When it's good though, the scenes are startlingly real and intense, and the book is unputdownable at those times. Chigurh likes to talk to people before he kills them - and maybe he'll let them live, you are never quite sure.

And like the original and only good, Rambo story "First Blood" (even if you don't like Sylvester Stallone, you owe it to yourself to go back the the source novel by David Morrell), this is a book about the alienation of America's young men returning home after a war. Vietnam is the obvious one here, but WW1 and WW2 are also represented. I spent a lot of time guessing the time period in which the book is set, from the ages of the characters, and the wars they were in, and I came up with early 1980s - McCarthy really makes you work for it.

It's a good book, but the pacing needs workm and I expect it will make a great film. It feels like it was written especially for the screen, and in fact, especially for the Coen brothers. I look forward to watching it, but I think I'll need a stiff drink afterwards.

Posted by se71 at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2008

Animal Farm - George Orwell

Animal Farm - George Orwell

Book 8 of my 52 Books in 2008

This is cheating a little, as it's a very short book, and also a reread. I wanted to refresh my memory of it before passing it along to someone else, so that we can discuss it meaningfully together. It's at least 20 years since I read it, and I'd forgotten many of the small points, so I'm glad I read it again.

What can I say about it that has not been said thousands of times before. Not much. Everyone knows that this is, as it's subtitled in fact, a "Fairy Story" about farm animals taking over their farm from a farmer. Everyone also knows that this isn't what it's about at all, it is a story about politics and how workers are controlled by their leaders.

I'm not that hot on different political systems. Communism is the main target here; I know this from my meagre back knowledge of Orwell and the history of the Russian Revolution. The animals overthrow their oppressive owner, but gradually, their new society reverts to a similar, or even worse, condition. The pigs, as cleverest, set themselves up as leaders, and like it a bit too much. They use misinformation, distraction, and eventually terror to force the other animals to obey them. It happens quite gradually, and it's really very clever and it is satisfying to watch the plot work out, even when you know how it's going to end.

Any government is in danger of exhibiting the dangers seen here. This novel is as relevant today as it was during World War II when it was published. As a story for children it is very violent and callous in places - but then, so are many traditional fairy stories. I highly recommend this then to all ages, and in fact, will now look out for one of the animated versions on DVD to play at home.

Posted by se71 at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2008

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

Book 7 of my 52 books for 2008

I've had this book kicking around my house for years, and picked it up this week because I couldn't really decide what else to read, and it's quite short, and I really do need to read what I've bought before buying too much more.

When I first stareted reading SF, I devoured Asimov and Sheckley and Heinlein, but for some reason only managed a couple of Clarke's books (2001/2010). More recently I read "Rendezvous with Rama", as it's regarded as a classic, and it was OK but utlimately a bit unfulfilling. Sadly, I feel the same way about this novel.

The premise is that in the future, life in our solar system becomes impossible, and so seed ships are sent to planets around other stars. They are automated, and contain enough genetic material that machines can recreate humanity and other forms of earth life and plants in the new world. On one such planet, Thalassan, people have thrived on a world mostly covered with water. 700 Years after they arrived, something thought impossible happens; a ship full of real people from Earth arrives.

The narrative follows the interactions of these two different cultures. There is some future history of Earth, some philosophy on the nature of God, a bit of genetic nurture/nature talk. Interesting topics of course, and intelligently handled.

So what's the problem? All the elements for a great story seem to be here. Part of the answer lies in the age of the piece. It's based on a novella from 1957 (this updated/extended version was written in 1985). In the 1950s it was easier to get away with throwing in a few speculative ideas, a spaceship, and a couple of aliens to make a story. I've become spoilt recently with Alistair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, and Stephen Baxter [1] who manage to fit a whole lot more into their fiction - mystery, excitement, violence, mind boggling ideas, and really wild things. It's hard to go back to the old 'classics' which read a bit like children's stories of the future to me now.

Secondly and related to the first point maybe is that all the characters behave in such a caring and supportive way to each other that it's just a bit boring. Some evil thoughts are revealed, but nobody actually actions them. You would think that a threatened ship's mutiny would be a bit interesting, but it's all over amicably in a few pages. One thing I did quite enjoy was the outrageously unsubtle digs at religion we get in here.

I've often thought that I'd have time eventually to get round to reading a lot of 1950s-1970s SF that I missed. However, when I do, I'm quite often disappointed like this. Yesterday's futures have a hard job of staying fresh, and unfortunately The Songs Of Distant Earth has gone stale.

Update:
Not long after writing this, Arthur C. Clarke died. I felt a bit bad that I'd just given a fairly poor account of one of his books. I'm going to stand by it though, and really hope I can find a novel of his that I like more. Clarke did a lot of good for science fiction, probably more than any other author. Surely his whole reputation isn't based on 2001 (and that geosynchronous orbit thing) ?

[1] Baxter and Clarke have collaborated, maybe I should try one of those books

Posted by se71 at 10:29 AM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2008

The Woods - Harlan Coben

The Woods - Harlan Coben

Book 6 of my 52 books for 2008

After what I thought was a bit of a disappointing read last year, "Promise Me", this one is more of a return to form for Corben, in fact surpassing anything else I've read by him.

This one is about a violent crime 20 years in the past that left four teenagers dead and tore apart several families. Paul Copeland is a prosecutor trying an important case when his past comes back to make him doubt what really happened in the woods all those years ago.

The opening few pages are terrifically emotionally charged, and Corben keeps piling it on throughout the book. The only annoying thing is that his characters make amusing quips at the most inappropriate of moments. I completely lost my sense of disbelief at these times as it's so jarring, and so not what people would really do.

As well as the solving of the mystery, there are thought provoking ideas of what is right and wrong morally. Is it better to tell the truth or tell a white lie that keeps your relative out of prison. Would you stand up to corruption if your life was threatened? What about your child's life. What would you do to protect them? Happily, the days of black and white are long behind us, and we get many shades of grey here.

As the mysteries gradually unravel, and the skeletons (almost) literally come out of the closets, it all gets a bit complicated, and barely believable, but just manages to stay on the right side of plausibility. This is as it should be, a bit of mind stretching is good exercise.

Something Coben does well is to include new technology in his books. In a lot of fiction you'd think that mobile phones had never been invented, nevermind the internet. Here phones go off all the time, just like real life, and when someone wants to track down an old flame, he Googles for her and gets a photo from her work website. Since CSI, TV have made progress in this area, though they go a bit far into what's actually possible. But people do use Google for all sorts of things these days. It's become part of the language, so authors who want to reflect real life ought to reflect that.

It's a really good thriller, and commendably for this genre, manages it without trying to gross the reader out.

Posted by se71 at 01:51 PM | Comments (0)

Galactic North - Alastair Reynolds

Galactic North - Alastair Reynolds

Book 5 of my 52 books for 2008

This is a collection of about eight short science fiction stories. They are linked, some more closely than others, and all are set in the same universe as the Revelation Space series of novels. In fact, many of the same characters appear in these stories, so it's requiered reading if you want to see what those conjoiners, demarchists and ultras are getting up to.

For the uninitiated, the galaxy has been colonised, and people travel between the stars in suspended animation. Some of these people have to a lesser or greater extent modified their minds and bodies to include cybernetic enhancements. They don't get along with each other that well.

These stories follow a sort of progression into the future, even the far future. Each is packed full of interesting science, have satisfying and sometimes unexpected conclusions, and are just the right length to be meaty enough to have substance, but not too stodgy to leave you bloated.

Very enjoyable, recommended, but mostly will be enjoyed by dedicated Reynolds followers.

Posted by se71 at 01:34 PM | Comments (0)

February 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - January 2008

Progress so far in my quest to read 52 books in 2008

January
1. Midnight Falcon by David Gemmell
2. On Chisel Beach by Ian McEwan
3. Origin by Stephen Baxter
4. The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe
5. Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Posted by se71 at 05:29 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2008

The Rotters' Club - Jonathan Coe

The Rotters' Club - Jonathan Coe

Book 4 of my 52 books for 2008

I first became aware of this through the TV adaptation. I never actually watched it, but saw plenty of trailers and thought it looked quite interesting. It's the story of a group of schoolkids growing up in the 1970s, which is what I did, so maybe, I thought, I'd be able to identify with them, and find it a satisfying read - it also looked very funny.

However, it's a very disappointing read all round, for quite a few reasons. The first unforgivable thing is that Coe doesn't even finish the story - I had no idea that this was not a one-off book. There are several very annoying loose ends, and the publishers have cheated readers by not alerting them to this on the front cover.

The second thing is that the characterisation is not very good. I could forgive the author for leading me down the garden path by not finishing the story if I was itching to find out what happens in the sequel, but the characters are too poorly defined in my head, even after about 500 pages, for me to care that much. I struggled to remember which one was which. He's also included prologue and epilogue stories set in the characters' future which are cryptic and make little sense. These people aren't even named, and it will only become clear who they actually are the next volume. Annoying.

Thirdly, the story Coe seemed to want to tell was about how great working class Labour party supporters are and how the 1970's shafted them. He shoehorned his characters into situations where all the strikes, and IRA bombs, and Welsh nationalism struggles, and inner city riots happened to them. This came across as very forced, and his political views, unfettered by any counter arguments, jarred quite badly with mine, so the whole mishmash left me completely cold.

Though I didn't really care that much about anyone in the book, I would quite like to know what happens to them, I hate loose ends, but I'm not reading the sequel. Can someone who has please tell me?

Posted by se71 at 09:32 AM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2008

2008 Book List

Rather than wait till the end of the year, I'm starting my list of books I read in 2008 now. I only managed about 30 last year, and am aiming for 52 this year. Please give me a prod if you see the total slipping.

January
Midnight Falcon - David Gemmell

The Rotters Club - Jonathan Coe (currently reading)
On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan (currently reading)

Total 1

SF/Fantasy - 1/1
Women authors - 0/1
Published this year - 0/1

Posted by se71 at 01:21 PM | Comments (0)

Midnight Falcon - David Gemmell

Midnight Falcon - David Gemmell

Book 1 of my 52 books for 2008

This is the second in the Rigante series of heroic fantasy, a sequel to "Sword In The Storm" but much more like a continuation of the same novel than a different story. The action takes place around 20 years after the first volume. It largely concerns Connavar's illigitimate son Bane, and his attempts to make sense of his life.

A full review is somewhat unnecessary, everything I said about The Sword In The Storm holds true here. It's a fantastic book and resolves all the loose ends very satisfyingly.

Posted by se71 at 12:58 PM | Comments (0)

January 02, 2008

2007 Book List

Everyone else is making their lists of books they read in 2007, so here is mine, with some analysis.

A Song Of Stone - Iain Banks
A Spot Of Bother - Mark Haddon
Becoming An Ironman - John Collins
Black Swan Green - David Mitchell
Forever Odd - Dean Koontz
Ghostwritten - David Mitchell
I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith
Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively
Notes On A Scandal - Zoe Heller
Number9Dream - David Mitchell
Pilgermann - Russell Hoban
Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austin
Promise Me - Harlan Coban
Pushing Ice - Alistair Reynolds
Schild's Ladder - Greg Egan
Set In Stone - Robert Goddard
Small Steps - Louis Sachar
Space - Stephen Baxter
Stardust - Neil Gaiman
Sword In The Storm - David Gemmell
The Broken Shore - Peter Temple
The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
The Husband - Dean Koontz
The Road - Cormac McCarthy
The Tenderness Of Wolves - Stef Penney
The Testament - John Grisham
The Two Minute Rule - Robert Crais
Three Men In A Boat - Jerome K Jerome
Time - Stephen Baxter
Truckers - Terry Pratchett
Unless - Carol Shields
Unnatural Causes - PD James
We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

Of the approximately 30 fiction books, around 1/3 are SF/Fantasy, 1/4 are crime/mystery, 1/4 are by women authors. Only three books are by authors who are not still alive, and nearly half were first published in paperback 2007. So I'm mostly a genre reader, and like picking up new things off the bookshops shelves. Over half the books I liked a lot, and would recommend to friends to read; of the rest, some were averagely good, some passed the time, and four I'd rate as really awful.

Overall I'm pleased with the choices I made. I've discovered some good new authors, cemented my love of hard science fiction, completed all the David Mitchell books, and all the Alistair Reynolds ones currently in paperback.

For 2008, I need to read more back catalog Iain Banks and Terry Pratchet. I want to keep up with Alistair Reynolds and Iain Banks' new SF, avoid quite so much pulp crime fiction, finish off series I'm currently in the middle of from Stephen Baxter and David Gemmell (and maybe even return to the Peter F. Hamilton Night's Dawn trilogy that I abandoned after the first huge volume). Talking of long books, I once read 700 pages of "War and Peace", it might be time this summer to start over and complete it this time. I also need to review my progress through the BBC Big Read list of 100 novels that I promised myself I'd finish one day. And of course, I have to give myself some leeway to pick random new novels from "3 for 2" offers in Books etc. Inevitably, I'll get suckered into some popular bestseller that will turn out to be complete pants (Ukranian tractors anyone? Da Vinci Code?), but even that gives me the curious satisfaction of being able to slag the book off with complete authority.

Reading is great, and my train journey gives me as much as two hours a day to do it during the week, so I'm going to aim higher in 2008 and see if I can get through one book a week this time.

Full 2007 Listing

Posted by se71 at 11:25 AM | Comments (0)

December 19, 2007

Sword In The Storm - David Gemmell

Sword In The Storm

Truely excellent heroic fantasy from the sadly missed David Gemmell, no one does it better than he did. This is the start of the Rigante saga, and I'm really happy that I have another three books to go.

This volume concerns the early life of Connavar, also known as Sword in the Storm, also known as Demonblade. He lives in a remove community of people in Rigante tribe. They have battles with neighbouring tribes, but in general live a fairly settled life. Connavar gets to know a traveller from the distant land of the Stone people, who says that one day their way of life will be destroyed, when these fearsome warriors come across the sea and enslave them. So Connavar decides to travel to this land to find out what can be done to protect the Rigante.

As usual, we have magic, tragic deaths, heroic actions, and very real people who are neither black nor white in character - everything has subtle shades of gray. There is also an awful lot of sex, this book is not for kids. Gemmell tackles all sorts of issues, including disability, adultery, illigitimacy, prostitution, paedophilia; they may have a medieval leverl of technology, but their human problems are still relevant and understandable to us. His people live short but fast and very hard lives, but do love the good times they manage to make for themselves. The darkness is always tempered by light, which is one of the authors great skills.

If you could level one criticism, it would be that occasionally coincidence and fate play too much a part - but then, this is fantasy, not historic fiction - it goes with the territory. Also, the main narrative does not resolve the story, so you really do need get th next one.

I loved this book, and I'm well into the sequel already (Midnight Falcon), and loving it too.

Posted by se71 at 10:16 AM | Comments (0)

October 02, 2007

Three Men In A Boat - Jerome K. Jerome

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I picked this up in my local bookshop. It was prominently displayed at the front of the store, and I asked if it was a series and if they had any others. Unfortunately they didn't know about any series.

You'll notice the price, only £2. This is perfect for an old copyright free book. This edition is also very thin and light, just right for commuting.

It's also, so far, very good.

Update: Just found it here and checked, and it says there it was published in 1994. So what's it doing still for sale. Weird.

Update:

Now I've finished reading it, and wonder why it took me so long to ever get round to it. I found it a charming book, full of amusing insights into human character. It's really very funny in places, and I wouldn't be surprised if P.G. Woodhouse's Bertie Wooster character wasn't in some way indepted to the three men here.

Three very priviledged young men decide to take a couple of weeks off work (though their work seems more like a pasttime than an actual necessity) and boat up the river Thames from Kingston. As they pass through the historic towns, the narrator, J., gives some brief descriptions of the places, and also some amusing anecdotes he happens to think of. They pass through some places I know very well, and even come to a pub that was my local for many years, the Stag in Datchet.

Nothing much really happens, but the enjoyment is in the journey, and the alternative picture of 19th century England given is a pleasant antidote if you've been overdoing the Dickens a bit.

Posted by se71 at 04:56 PM | Comments (2)

September 29, 2007

Set In stone - Robert Goddard

Set In Stone - Robert Goddard

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This is a really poor effort from Goddard. I'm used to fairly obscure and intricate plots. I'm even used to the dogged hero who takes up a cause for no real reason and nearly gets himself killed travelling the length and breadth of the country searching for people to interrogate for information to solve some mystery or other. I can put up with that, but I can't handle a spooky house that has ghosts, and makes people do weird uncharacteristic things, including suicide and murder. Stick to thrillers Mr Goddard, with a plot that actually makes sense when you get to the end, and leave the spooky stuff to James Herbert. I hate to leave this review with nothing positive, so I will say that I've enjoyed several of Goddards other books, especially "Into the Light", so I hope this one is just an aberration, and will try again. One more chance is all I'll give him though.

Please give this one a miss, and save yourself a few hours of your life to do something more productive, like, well, pretty much anything.

Posted by se71 at 11:51 AM | Comments (0)

September 27, 2007

A Song of Stone - Iain Banks

A Song of Stone - Iain Banks

The action takes place in a fictional country and time, where lawlessness has taken over in a war that seems to have no purpose.
A Lord (Abel) and his lady (Morgan) have decided to leave their castle before it is captured by bandits, and set off on the road as refugees. The same day however they are captured by a female leiutenant (Loot) and her ragtag company of soldiers. They are forced back to the castle, and this is where Abel plays a dangerous game, sometimes helping the soldiers, sometimes attempting sabotage, with death a real possibility at any time.

This is a novel of war and lust, and really very unpleasant on both counts. It starts depressingly, and only gets worse as it goes on. The aristocratic narrator plays with language for it's own sake. Some of the paragraphs are little more than old fashioned flowery wallpaper; you can see how someone might have once found it interesting, but it's now become too fussy and overwrought to be palatable. So you find yourself skimming from boring descriptive passages, slap bang into decapitation, incest and rape.

I suppose as a condemnation of war and the baseness of human nature, this works. There is no glorification of conflict, no compassion overcoming evil. However without some positivity, the relentless pessimism just drags you down as a reader and depresses you. Abel is a very original character, part Marquis De Sade, Machiavellian in nature, and completely amoral. Even though you feel you ought to be on his side against the soldiers, he's so unpleasant you can't, and so watching the plot unfold is more of an intellectual exercise than it should be. Who wins or loses isn't really important, and perhaps this is what Banks wants us to understand.

So though I think it could be a valuable book, the x-rated sex and the thoroughly nasty violence are so uncomfortable, and some of the prose so overblown and pretentious, that I'd never recommend it to anyone.

Posted by se71 at 01:52 PM | Comments (2)

Unnatural Causes - P.D. James

Unnatural Causes - P.D. James

Published in 1967, and hampered by some strangely inappropriate political incorrectness, this novel has dated really badly. Agatha Christies 1960's novels were also out of kilter with the times. Dining at one's club, employing servants and having a country retreat may be things that people still did (and still do), but they weren't treated as normal, in the way they would have been before the war. Society moved on, and English crime fiction took a while to catch up.

Casually mentioning that someone is a cripple, and actively disliking them for this same reason, isn't something a writer would contemplate allowing their hero to do nowadays, yet Inspector Dalgliesh does just that here. He come across as a moody unpleasant person in fact, which I wasn't prepared for. I've never encountered him before, I seem to have somehow missed all the TV series and novels. I'm not sure I want to again.

If these were my only complaints, we'd probably still be OK, but the plot itself is contrived and stupid as well. Dalgliesh is on holiday by the coast when a local writer is found dead in a boat with his hands cut off. This remote part of England is populated by a small community of fairly tedious people who dislike each other, but seem nevertheless to spend a lot of time in each others company. Though it's not his case, Dalgliesh gets involved anyway, antagonising the implausably named Inspector Reckless who gets the case.

The action heads up to London briefly, where we meet a reserved butler and a streetwise prostitute. Along with the egotistical writer and the underappreciated secretary, James has really made no effort here to give any of the novel's characters and individuality. Cardboard cutouts going through the motions.

And when we finally get to the end of the chase, the murderer has very kindly provided a taped confession of why and how they actually did it (yes, that really happens a lot in real life doesn't it?), but by then, you don't really care that much anyway.

This is a terrible book, one I started, gave up for a couple of months, and then finally finished just because I don't like leaving books half read; and because it's very short. I wish I'd never started it though.

Posted by se71 at 01:03 PM | Comments (0)

September 19, 2007

Time - Stephen Baxter

Time - Stephen Baxter

Reid Malenfant is a terrible name for a hero, it's just jarring to parse everytime you come across it. And yet, this is the man we're going to follow through the multiverse (or manifold, as that seems to be the new name for it), watching universes being born and dieing with a gung-ho devil-may-care attitude, and maybe an underlying sensitivity, after all, book characters cannot be black or white any more, we need shades of gray.

The plot here is very complicated, and I'm not sure at all what I can reveal here without it being classed as a spoiler. If you are worried at all, stop reading now. Even if you do read on though, don't expect to understand much, I didn't.

Set in the near future, the Carter hypothesis is predicting the end of civilisation on Earth within 200 years. Malenfant is a rich businessman with a yearning for space. He encourages everyone to reach for the asteroids as a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system and eventually galaxy. At the same time as this, 'blue' children are appearing all over the world, who are a super geniuses, and the general population are afraid of them. Also, squid are being augmented to enable them to communicate with humans.

There is a lot more happening, including a discovery of a strange monolith that seems to be of extra-terrestrial origin, and messages from the future. Everything comes to a head very quickly, and there are more scientific ideas than bacteria on a kitchen chopping board.

The title is a bit of a giveaway that some kind of time travel will happen. If you are going to do that, you have to expect your readers to either take it with a pinch of salt as an interesting plot device, or to take you apart with shouts of "Ha! What about causality?". And so that's my main complaint really, he takes everything very seriously, but doesn't explain it (because that's just about impossible anyway) in any way that makes enough sense. My other complaint is how Reid seems to be able to monitor things happening in distant universes, or across our solar system, instantly. Nevermind that the links are supposed to be only one way, or that we have a small law concerning the speed of light, it's all explained away glibly to keep the story going. And lets also not bother to explain how one squid can turn into a colony of super intelligent cephalopods with capabilities to build spacecraft in a few years. and these 'blue' children, where did their intellignece come from?

Malenfant describes himself as a Space Cadet, and the book tries hard to be a combination of Flash Gordon exploration, and future social commentary, and deep cosmological thinking. Though it's a cracking good read, the cracks get larger and larger in the plot, and eventually you fall through, and the ending is really absurd.

'Space' is a kind of sequel to this, and I'm sorry to admit it, but I think I will have to read on, and see if this mess resolves itself. I sometime I think i'm just not smart enough to understand these kinds of books; this one and Greg Egan's 'Schild's Ladder' have had me a bit stumped recently. But then I remember that I'm actually not unintelligent, I've studied some of this stuff quite a bit, and I still think the authors are taking liberties that they shouldn't do if they want to produce readable fiction.

Posted by se71 at 04:07 PM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2007

Schild's Ladder - Greg Egan

Schild's Ladder - Greg Egan

This science fiction novel is definitely the most complex I've ever attempted. Some might say it's one of the 'hardest' SF novels ever, and I'm tempted to think that this was one of Egan's aims when he wrote it. This occasionally works for me here; I like mind expanding hypotheses about quantum physics and cosmology, but near the end this book stretches the bounds of believability way past breaking point and lost me completely.

There is a lot of good stuff here which I enjoyed. People live forever, and if they by accident suffer a 'local' death, the most recent backup of their mind is used to create a new body, or even just an acorporeal personality. Distances are travelled at light speed across the galaxy, as you just transmit yourself as electromagnetic waves; whole planets can be evacuated in this way with no loss of life. Personalities can be duplicated (though the ethics and consequences of this aren't explored), they can be shrunk to the femtoparticle level, they can have their time perception altered so that a microsecond becomes months or years of subjective time. All good stuff.

But there is a huge amount of fairly tedious theoretical maths, which is treated as real. This is quite right of course within the frame of a novel, but Egan goes even further, expanding the ideas to a level which starts to seem absurd, rather than enlightening. A new type of vacuum is described, and as it gets more and more bizarre, you realise that the story can go anywhere Egan likes, the internal consistency required of SF is gone as he just makes up another amazing phenomenon to take his characters whereever he wants.

So it's good, but it's also bad, I hesitate to use the phrase 'too clever by half', but a bit less cleverness might have made a better story. I'm not going to go into the plot in detail at all, either you like the sound of it by now, or you don't.

But I still think everyone should buy it, in the brand spanking feel good edition - the tactile cover is brilliant. You can see it here, but go to a shop and look at the others in the series too, and touch them.

Posted by se71 at 10:06 AM | Comments (0)

September 12, 2007

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

I've read "All the Pretty Horses" and quite liked it - not enough to yet have a go at the rest of the Border trilogy, but I thought it was an interesting and well written story.

I've also read and watched a lot of science fiction, and contemplated post apocalyptic civilisation more than most both in fiction and in my own thoughts.

Marrying together science fiction and 'proper' literature' doesn't really happen that much. Either a book is SF, and thus crappy genre fiction, or it's a deep meaningful mainstream story about real people and their feelings. Contemplating real people in fantastic situations doesn't seem to be something the general public can cope with without compartmentalising it into non-worthy SF. Most authors stick in one or the other area, Ian Banks is a notable exception, and recently PD James had a big success with the futuristic "Children of Men", though she is also a genre author really who usually does crime books.

But does this one work. Short answer is probably No.

A man and his son are walking along a road in a world of the future, where everything, including animals and plants, is dead. Only a few people survive, living off the scraps of food left in tins and packets, scavanged from houses and shops. They wear masks to protect them from the permanent dust; the sky is gray, and at night it gets so dark you cannot see anything and have to stop walking completely. Where are they going? And more inportantly, what will they do if they get there?

A lot of people have written stories about this kind of scenario. It's endlessly fascinating to predict what people might do - band together for protection - revert to primitive feudal times - fight wars until no one was left. I'm particularly reminded of some of P.K. Dick's short stories, or David Brin's "The Postman". Then there are films like Mad Max, or even The Planet of the Apes sequence. But this is not strong on science, and not that strong on ideas either. It needs more of a purpose. It needs some attempt at describing why the earth is as it is, and how long it's likely to stay that way. I was particularly disappointed at the lacklustre ending with it's semi-religious overtones, which didn't make me think I'd spent my reading time profitably.

So I wouldn't say it is good science fiction. Is it good fiction? Well yes, once it gets going, it's quite interesting, and quite exciting at times too. The slow progress is handled with a light touch and never really becomes dirgelike. I never found myself bored, though some of the conversations between father and son were a bit enigmatic for no good reason. McCarthy throws in a few odd words he's found in a thesaurous sometimes, but not too many.

This book has actually won prestigious awards, including The Pulitzer and The Quill. I really don't know why it's getting lauded so much. If Stephen King had written it, he'd have put it in one of his short story collections and people would have liked it, but it would never have won any prizes.

I'm pleased that 'normal' people may be exposed to fantasty fiction that they might otherwise not have seen. But I'm disappointed that they are not getting a proper plot, with a scientifically thought out scenario.

If you want excellent challenging prose, and a story set in a fascinating post civilisation world, then have a look at "Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban.

Posted by se71 at 09:54 AM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2007

Pilgermann - Russell Hoban

Pilgermann - Russell Hoban

There is usually a sense of masochism in reading Hoban's novels, but this was the most impenetrable and least enjoyable one I've encountered so far.

The lead character, Pilgermann, is a Jewish man living in medieval times. He is maimed by Christians and then outcast from his home and goes on a pilgramage to Jerusalem, meeting many people and things, some alive, some dead, on the way. He ends up a slave in Antioch, where he designs a magnificant mathematical design which is turned into a massive mozaic just prior to the famous siege there.

Some figures in the story are mythical, and some real historic characters, and it's all narrated by Pilgermann from the modern day perspective as he looks back from our century to his past life.

Hoban is endlessly creative, and he is showing his intellect off here outrageously with so much history, religion, philosophy and art that your mind boggles with it all. It is interesting, bizarre, horrific, and funny, but it's brilliance is it's downfall, as there is just too much to try and take in, and some of it really is very dry. A lot of prior knowledge of these subjects is also assumed, as without it, the points he is making go right over your head, and I just didn't have the time or sufficient interest to do this research.

So I wouldn't recommend this book unless you want a thorough pounding on early Judeo/Muslim/Christian politics, are not squeamish, and don't mind your novels having no real discernible point.

[Ps - this doesn't mean Riddley Walker isn't still one of my top 10 books ever]

Posted by se71 at 03:06 PM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2007

number9dream - David Mitchell

After the roller-coaster ride that was Cloud Atlas, I was really looking forward to pludering the small back catalog of Mitchell's work; this book and the previous one Ghostwritten.

From Mitchell's brief bio in the inside cover, it says he spent a few years living in Japan. He has made full use of what he learnt about the country and it's people in this book, as his hero is a 19 year old Japanese man and most of the action takes place in present day Tokyo. It's all very authentic sounding, with some small details thrown in to convince us he knows what he is talking about, like the Kanji symbols making up Eiji's Japanese name being unusual.

Eiji Miyake moves from his home in the countryside to try to find his father, who he has not ever met, in Tokyo. He does not even know his father's name, but has some leads. The narrative progresses fairly normally, except for some disconcerting daydream excursions. Eiji gets a dead-end job, rents a small room, desires a waitress in a cafe.

Not for the faint hearted - Eiji gets mixed up with the Japanese mafia - the Yakuza. There are some very violent scenes which come as a bit of a shock after the more sendentary opening chapters. I wasn't totally convinced by the plot here as well; Eiji risks life and limb for information on his father - information I'd probably not want to die for. However, this section is the most exciting and interesting part of the book.

The latter sections are a bit disappointing after all the Yakuza drama, and I didn't think the father story ended well. A subplot about Yakuza and computer viruses is also left hanging. Maybe we're supposed to extrapolate the future for ourselves, I just feel a bit let down by it.

Overall, it's a very accomplished novel. It's very clever and I enjoy some of the games he plays with us, though there are too many dream sequences (something I *hate* in novels). There are some very odd sections that I think I'm just not smart enough to see the significance of (Goatwriter), and some nautical history from the Second World War that is interesting, but just too long. If I was an editor I'd probably cut out a third of this book.

So I'd have to say I admired the writing, more than I enjoyed the book. I'm not sorry I read it, there are a lot worse books around. In the end, Eiji started to get on my nerves a bit, and I didn't care that much about his quest. I was hoping for a more emotional attachment, he proved he could do that with the characters in Cloud Atlas, but missed the mark a bit here.

Posted by se71 at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

No, don't get too excited, despite the title this is just another post about my book/film/TV/music interests.

I'm currently reading a book by Dean Koontz called "The Husband". Koontz is a phenominally prolific and successful author, but he's unlikely to win many literary prizes. I feel kind of guilty reading the books, a bit like eating McDonalds food, but now and then I can't help myself and purchase one or the other and devour them greedily. I literally (sic) can't wait to get a break from whatever else I'm doing to find out what happens next.

See also my review of "Odd Thomas", which I notice now has two sequels I will have to read.


This is a placeholder post where I might add other guilty pleasures - what are yours?

Posted by se71 at 03:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2007

Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively

I've made pretty good progress through the Booker prize winners recently, and have just finished this winner from 1987.

I really liked the book, though it was lucky no razor blades were handy when I finished it as it has possibly one of the most depressing and downbeat endings I've ever encountered.

It tells the story of a woman called Claudia, and the narrative jumps about through various stages in her life. It begins as she is lying in a hospital, dying from cancer. She tells us she is going to give us a history of the world, and she proceeeds to tell us about the major events in her life.

As a young woman, Claudia was clever, beautiful, confident. She was irrestible to men, and we find out about the relationships she has had, some shocking, some sad, none really fulfilling. In her prime she went to Egypt during the Second World War as a journalist, one of the few women to be allowed this kind of posting. There is quite a lot of history lesson, so I learnt a bit about the North African campaign that I didn't know before.

During these flashbacks to her previous life, people from her life come and visit Claudia in her hospital room. Her daughter, her brother's wife, her adopted refugee friend. They all think they know her, they think she has gone senile. But she is still a lucid and intelligent person, it's just that her body isn't working properly any more. She drifts in and out of consciousness, and occasionally forgets the names of common household objects. And they don't really know her, they have no idea about the biggest secret of her life.

A few literary tricks are used, sometimes to better effect than others. When an incident is described by Claudia, sometimes the other people involved also get a go to explain what they were thinking, and why they reacted in a particular way. This reveals useful insights sometimes, but at other times adds very little. And rather than just finding out about what Claudia knows, we also discover in first person narrative from her daughter that there are secrets here too.

The sadness of the end is inevitable, and is only tempered a little by a new discovery revealed in a stack of old diary entries from a former lover.

It's a dense book, short and profound, thoughtful and philosophical. What is a life all about anyway? Who are we but a collection of memories in other peoples heads? How different is the person I was yesterday to the one I am today? Why do we have to get old? Oh, can someone pass the Wilkinson Swords please.

Posted by se71 at 12:40 PM | Comments (0)

November 20, 2006

Popular Fiction

I'm having a severe problem with popular fiction - far too much of it is complete pants.

I like to read interesting and thought provoking fiction. I also like to read books that a lot of other people read, so that I can keep up with popular culture, and have something to talk about at dinner parties (though I never get invited to those, hmm).

Science fiction and fantasy pretty much always work for me for the intellectual reasons, but hardly anyone you meet in day to day life will know the difference between Gemmmell and Reynolds. They may have read Banks, but seldom have touched (or even be aware of in some cases) M. Banks.

So, to expand my mind and horizons, I decided a few years back to jump out of genre fiction (into which I also include horror and crime), and embrace the stuff that everyone else seems to be reading. This experiment has succeed and failed in equal measure. My hit rate is much less than 50% I'd say, and I'd like to find a way to increase my odds of a good read.

First the successes. I have discovered some books that have literally blown me away. The quality of the writing, the depths of emotions, the scale of the vision; all these things have surprised me and pleased me. I'm talking about books like 'Atonement' by Ian McEwan, 'Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, and "The Remains of the Day" by Katsuo Ishiguro. Other novels by these writers are also excellent. I've got a few other authors I like, Ian Banks, John Irving, but I'm quite a slow reader, so have to choose carefully and my list is quite small.

Unfortunately I've had more than a few complete failures. 'Bridget Jone's Diary' was vacuous, 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' was complete tripe from beginning to end. I thought maybe Richard and Judy's bookclub would be a good source of new choices, but 'The Shadow of the Wind' was rubbish, "An American Boy' was 500 odd pages of complete pointlessness, and while I liked a lot of 'The Time Traveller's Wife', the ending was very disappointing.

I've even had a bit of a foray into Booker prize land - surely that would be a good way to make my decisions? But even a bestseller, prize winner, and personal recommendation like 'The Life of Pi' left me wishing I'd wasted my time elsewhere.

So what am I to do? Most popular fiction seems to be badly written dross. Why are people putting up with it? Why on earth do they keep buying it? Can any serious reader say "The Da Vinci Code" without cringing? The only conclusion I've reached is that picking a random but attractive looking book off the bestseller list is a complete waste of time. The general public must have little taste, and the Booker judges should get out more. I'm going to have to stick with science fiction, and with my small list of quality non-genre authors.

If you know any author or book that is in the bestseller list that you'd like to recommend, I'm open to suggestions, but unless you agree with everything I've written here, perhaps it's best you leave me to my ranting.

Posted by se71 at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2006

The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith

This is a cold hearted thriller in the Hitchcock vein, Highsmith also penned "Strangers on a Train". It has a few twists that shouldn't be given away before reading, as Ripley's talents gradually get uncovered. It starts with a tense scene that reveals Ripley as a petty crook, a bit of a loser, in 1950s America. He is made an offer to go to Europe to try and persuade a young man called Dickie Greenleaf to come back to New York to visit his family. Dickie's father pays Ripley's passage and expenses.

Ripley finds Greenleaf, and insinuates himself into his life. He loves the lifestyle, the easy going Italian riviera; the trips to Rome and other towns; drinking wine and not worrying about money. He decides that this is the life for him, and that he will do anything to keep it.

The whole story is told through Ripleys point of view. We know how he thinks, what he feels, and we empathise with him. He has had a hard life, and wants better things. Then as events turn nasty, and we see his sociopathic side, we find it harder to like him, and yet still somehow hope he succeeds. It's very skillfully written, and the tension is unbearable at times.

Very highly recommended.

I saw the film of this a few years ago, and never really believed in Matt Damon in the part of Tom Ripley. Now I've read the book and have gotten a much better feel for the character, and I'm a bit more happy that he actually did quite a good job. Jude Law as Dickie is excellent, completely perfect as the rather lazy playboy.

Posted by se71 at 06:26 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2006

Sin City

This is primarily a review of the movie, though some references to the graphic novels is inevitable. Why? Well, becasue they are practically identical. Never before has a live action film crossed over from the printed page with such complete accuracy. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that if you've seen/read one of them, you can honestly claim to have read/seen the other too. My previous short review of "The Hard Goodbye" is here.

This movie is based on three separate graphic novels, with short, interconnected introduction and conclusion sections. Unfortunately the lack of continuity shows. There is an attempt to get all the characters together near the end, to make it look like one story, but it doesn't really fool anyone. And one of the stories starts and ends the film - well, actually, it sort of goes A B C D B A. (B - That Yellow Bastard, C - The Hard Goodbye, D - The Big Fat Kill, A - bookend sections). I guess as director I'd have done the same thing, rather than just show the stories consecutively.

However everything does take place in one city, Sin City, where the laws of physics don't seem to work the same way. People can survive falling from tall buildings, and live through appalling gunshot wounds, and even biology is different, with one character turning a luminous yellow after drug treatments. Each of the stories has a main hard man, nothing stops him getting justice, that is, his personal brand of justice. He doesn't mind a bit of maiming, torture and killing, to get revenge. Each of the stories has a tough woman too, though not so tough she doesn't need rescuing by the hard man. Oh, and she is always very attractive, and quite often wears very little or no clothing.

So we are safely in 18 certificate territory. You have been warned.

What we get are detective stories in the Philip Marlow vein, but with a lot more oomph to appeal to a jaded generation that has seen it all and can take it. Bruce Willis is a cop nearing retirement who saves a young girl from a violent rapist, but gets sent to prison becasuse the man he catches is actually the son of the corrupt governer. Mickey Rourke is an ugly man with mental problems, and he scours the city trying to avenge the murder of a prostitute who was kind to him. Finally, Clive Owen is the third tough guy, protecting a group of prostitutes from the corrupt police force. Owen doesn't quite have the meanness of the other two, he doesn't quite convince us that he could take the punishment Willis and Rourke take and keep going, but he comes very close.

The women, as secondary characters, are all the whore with a heart of gold type. They trust their man to help them, but are tough when needed. The film has been branded as sexist, as the women all appeal to male fantasies and need protection from the men. To a large extent this is true, but it's not the whole story. Jessica Alba plays a smart, tough woman, who is self reliant and resourceful. Carla Gugino as Rourke's parole officer only really has one flaw, she believes that the cops are the good guys.

I loved this film - it's fast and furious, violent but darkly funny. It has a magnificent 'look', black and white computer generated backgrounds, with only some bright splashes of colour, maybe in someone's eyes, or their red lipstick. It's not for the faint-hearted, but if you like this kind of thing, then it's one for the DVD collection, as you can easily enjoy it again and again.

Posted by se71 at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

June 20, 2006

JPod - Douglas Coupland

It's a really long time since I read Generation X and Microserfs, Coupland's landmark novels. I have forgotten most of them, except a few things, including the McJob, the flat food, and the dot-com programmers working stupid hours for no money but instead the empty promise of multi-million dollar stock options when their company IPOs.

Having just completed JPod, I'm reasonably sure that it's pretty much the same stuff, slightly repackaged to include the new internet themes and memes.

Ethan works in an office for a computer game company. We're supposed to think he's a pretty normal geek in the beginning. He has the stereotypical cubicle life. He gets great company perks like free food and drinks, and very flexible hours. He calls his block of cubicles JPod, as everyone's surname begins with J. There are 5 main colleagues, all with odd quirks.

But Ethan's life is weird. All his family and friends are weird, and he happily gets caught up in all their illegal activities. I think we're supposed to find this amusing, like the way John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are funny hitmen in Pulp Fiction. But I just found the weirdness distastful and not very original. It goes on a bit too long as well, and like a soap opera, you can see the set-ups coming for miles.

It's written in an easy style which will have you moving through at 100 pages an hour if you're not careful. Of course, having pages and pages of prime numbers and digits of pi adds a lot to the thickness of the book, and very little to the interestingness.

Geeks will love all the overt references to Google, Nigerian spam, Blackberries and the multitude of other things they are daily exposed to. You get the feeling that Coupland really understands this world. He knows that dissecting a geek's laptop will expose just about everything you need to know about his life. I'm a card carrying geek myself and enjoyed that I understood most of the archane 8 bit computer talk, that I knew Belgian keyboards are hell to use, that I know what a rendering farm is. A few years back I was reading a Scott Adams Dilbert book, and was laughing my head off. My mum was there, and I showed her the passage - she has never worked in an office and the humour just didn't work on her. I think JPod is the same.

If you're not into the whole eBay, Quake, C++ world, if you think a computer is just a tool, and not a life choice, then I think you'll be turned off fairly quickly by this book. If like me you spend the day wondering what piece of software you could upgrade or reconfigure instead of doing any real work, then you'll find it a fun read, but you will be unconvinced by the actual story, and you won't care at all about the characters or what happens to them.

I even bought the limited edition, which comes signed by the author, and has a little JPod plastic figure. Nice marketing.

Posted by se71 at 10:37 AM | Comments (0)

June 05, 2006

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

Sometimes it takes a few days for a novel to sink in after you've read it. This story seeps into your consciousness, and you find yourself thinking about it long after it's finished. Is this a defintion of a good book? Yes, I think it probably is.

There is very little that can be written in a review of "Never Let Me Go" without giving away key elements of the plot. If you like thought provoking themes set in a world much like ours, but subtly different you might like this book. If you want to see this world through the painfully honest eyes of a girl as she grows up, you might like this book. If you enjoy watching something gradually unfolding, with clues to what is really going on revealing the horrible truth....well, I think you'll like this.

Basically, I really think you should read this, but I can't actually tell you why without spoiling it for you.

It is completely heartbreaking though.

Posted by se71 at 10:36 AM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2006

Magician - Raymond E. Feist

Another of the BBC Big Read Top 100 books, and one I have wanted to read for about twenty years anyway, so picking it up at last wasn't a chore. What was a chore however was wading through the almost 700 pages of battles and magic in the worlds of Kelawan and Midkemia in which the characters live. I did enjoy the story, it is a typical sword and scorcery adventure in the "Lord of the Rings" vein. The action scenes are well executed, the mysteries are revealed as slowly but surely the heroes fulfil their unlikely destinies.

The problem I did have however was the immense amount of politics and the seemingly neverending descriptions of the colours of peoples robes. Some of this is of course required to give the story substance, and to add human details to scenes to help us to picture them in our mind's eye. I think perhaps the edition I have read, which is a tenth year anniversary of first publication and contains 15,000 more words than the original, may be the reason for the verbosity. It is always tempting to include scenes you've written I'm sure, but sometimes the editor who cut them out is right. Slowing down the forward narrative to spend time on background details in an adventure yarn should be handled with great care.

It's the tale of a orphan boy called Pug who lives on the outskirts of a large kingdom. As usual, they have only a medieval level of technology; bows and arrows, but no guns; horses and carts, but no internal combustion engine. There are magicians, but there power is a bit difficukt to quantify - most are fairly ineffectual. He has a friend called Tomas, and lives with his family as an adopted son to the cook at a Duke's castle. The boys dream of a future in which Tomas will be a great warrior, and Pug a master magician. Of course, in fantasies such as this, dreams really can come true.

Suddenly the relative peacefulness of the kingdom is shattered by the arrival of a strange army. They appear from nowhere, and start to encroach upon the land, building up a territory of their own and fighting local people to enlarge it. Pug and Tomas are thrown into the middle of this and travel across the whole known world, and even to other worlds. They meet dwarves and elves, goblins and very powerful magicians who seem to predict the future.

There are a host of major and minor characters, and there are even some women, though they are only really standard love interest, and never get to take place in any real position of power.

I didn't really realise that this is the first in a trilogy called "The Riftworld Saga". I'm not sure if I'm sufficiently interested to read any more. There are some unexplained loose ends, but I'm quite satisfied I think with where this first volume closes. In fact, further investigation reveals there are loads more Riftworld books. I think it's best I stop now.

Posted by se71 at 02:57 PM | Comments (0)

Three for Two

I finished my book on the train this morning. In need of something new I popped into Books Etc on London Wall at lunchtime. I had a novel in mind, "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro. After a long fantasy story, I sometime like something shorter and more literary. I know practically nothing about the book, which is how I like it. I do know it takes place in the town of Hailsham, where a friend used to live, so that gives it an odd interest factor.

It's quite expensive at £7.99, but to make me feel better about spending this money, I paradoxically decide to spend over twice that amount. As part of a three for two promotion, I can get my cheapest book free.

The second book was easy to pick - it's one I've been waiting to come out in paperback - "Freakonomics". It's non-fiction, and is about the odd relationships between things, mostly I think having economics as a root cause.

A couple of summers ago I took Simon Winchester's "Krakatoa" on holiday with me. It was a very interesting read, being a study of both the science and the history of the situation when the biggest bang in the history of civilisation occurred. His new one is about the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906, and is called "A Crack in the Edge of the World"
I think I will read about this disaster as I sit in the sun wondering why everyone else is still reading Dan Brown. (actually, embarassingly, I'll probably have one of his with me too :-)

Posted by se71 at 02:54 PM | Comments (0)

March 30, 2006

Up The Line - Robert Silverberg

It seems a great idea - have a time travel story where the hero goes back to Byzantium about one thousand years ago and falls in love with his great, great, multi great, grandmother. Robert Silverberg is a renowned science fiction writer, so I wondered why I hadn't seen this one on the shelf any time. I picked it up in the local second-hand store however, and soon discovered why it's out of print.

Although this novel does explore the interesting concepts of the paradoxes of time travel, it was written at a time, the early 1970s, when there was far too much graphic sex in science fiction. The writers of the day all seemed to assume that the future would be full of liberated women, walking around practically naked, and under the influence of new recreational drugs that made them open to advances from any man around. Maybe that's the way society looked like it was going in a world before AIDS. LSD was hip, the psychedelic scene and the popstar lifestyles of people like the Beatles encouraged this freedom of expression. Perhaps people thought this future was inevitable, like flying cars and three course meals in a pill. But now we can look back and see how it all panned out, and it just hasn't happened that way. A lot of the fiction therefore looks outdated and embarassing at best, but this one is also quite unpleasant. Either it's that, or someone must have hit me with the politically correct stick, because in the book I found that the casual attitute to incest, under age sex, and rape, was so unpleasant that I had problems enjoying the rest of the story. It's for this reason I think it must have fallen out of favour with publishers.

It's a shame about the X rated nature of this book, because there is actually a good story hidden inside. Judson Elliot gets a job as a Time Courier. He takes groups of tourists back in time to witness famous events in history - and specialises in Byzantium. Whilst on a trip one of his party escapes into time and starts changing history. Judd and the other couriers have to do a lot of hopping around the centuries to try and find him and put things right. Of course, there is a Time Police force they have to try and keep all this activity hidden from. It's quite fun, and completely impossible, to try and keep track of all inconsistencies that time travel would create.

"The grandfater paradox" is very famous - what would happen if you killed your own grandfather before he had met your grandmother? You would therefore not be born. But if you weren't born, then you couldn't go back and kill your grandfather. So you'd be born again. Would this create some kind of loop? In this book the added complication of going back in time and actually being your own grandfather is explored.

If people really could go back and see Byzantium, surely all these tourists would eventually fill up all the available viewing spots.
If you could travel anywhere in time, why not go back and buy a nice property and some slaves and spend your vacations there. These issues are examined, but of course no conclusion is reached. The chances for disaster are so great that even supposing Time Couriers and Time Police really existed, I do not believe they would be able to control things at all.

So the time travel bits are good, the Byzantium history lessons are a bit too detailed and overlong, and the morals are disturbing. Overall, I wouldn't really recommend this to anyone but a stereotypical frustrated teenage boy - he could read this on the bus-ride to rent "American Pie" or "Porky's".

Posted by se71 at 05:21 PM | Comments (0)

March 27, 2006

The Traveller - John Twelve Hawks

This is a great book, and I didn't realise until very near the end that the story had a long way to go and couldn't possibly finish properly before the back cover arrived. Happily, it's revealed in a postscript that there are another two in the proposed trilogy on the way.

If you feel paranoid about personal privacy, as I do, then you will love the vindication this novel provides that we're all headed for a hellish time in a few short years. It is set in a near future world, where the agents of The Vast Machine are using computers to monitor us and control us. If we think we are being watched all the time, then we will behave. There are a lot of methods to do this, like tracking our cell phones to see where we go, also our credit card purchases, and face recognition systems attached to CCTV cameras. Most authors would make a good novel out of this, but Hawks goes a bit further, and turns a future thriller into a science fiction story too.

In this world, there are people who can project their essence, their 'Light' to other dimensions. These people are called Travellers. The Vast Machine are a shadowy intelligence organisation. They want to control the world, and think these people can help them. I'll not give away the 'how' here, but it's an even more outrageous concept. Maya is a person who has tried to live 'off the grid', out of sight of the Vast Machine. She is a Harlequin, one of another group of people, but these ones are dedicated protectors of Travellers. They are conditioned from birth to be experts in fighting and other skills necessary to survive in a hostile world and keep the Travellers safe.

Maya finds out about pair of brothers who might be Travellers. Gabriel and Michael are sons of a known Traveller, and the gift is sometimes passed down to children. She disguises herself and heads to America from her home in England to try and find them to protect them.

There are hints of other recent media in here - 'The Matrix' and 'The Da Vinci Code' being the most prominent, and the combination of real life privacy concerns in a post 9/11 world, along with the mysticism of the Traveller idea, is an uneasy mix. It just about works however, and is an exciting and stimulating thriller.

I recommend this to anyone who thinks that removal of privacy by the government to help stop terrorism is fine. If you have nothing to hide, why should you worry? Well, you might worry when all this information gets into the wrong hands.

I'm very much looking forward to the next installments.

Posted by se71 at 10:56 AM | Comments (1)

March 20, 2006

Lists Of Bests

Those people at Robot Co-op have been busy again, and have integrated yet another cool site into their existing environment. We've had All Consuming, 43 Things, 43 Places, 43 People, and now we have Lists of Bests.

I must admit to being a bit obsessive recently (shouldn't that be, like, forever? Ed.) with making lists. I like to know what CDs I have, what books I've read, what countries I've visited. This new site lets me create personal lists of these things, or use a list which the site term as 'definitive', a predefined list that everyone should be able to agree on.

I had a mental list of movies I never want to waste my time watching. There was nothing like this on the site, so I set one up here. This is never going to be definitive, so I set up a personal list, I hope you dislike my choices. But other people can also use it, or make a copy of it for their own purposes. They can also compare their version of the list against mine, or another user's list.

The definitive lists are things like 'Oscar Winning Movies', or 'Books by Douglas Adams'. You can have fun seeing how many items on the list you can tick off. Another example is a thing BBC did called The Big Read a couple of years ago. The British the public voted for their favourite books of all time. I determined that I'd try and read all novels in the top 100, and here is that list, and here is my progress through it.

I got so carried away the other day that I created a few definitive lists myself that I felt were needed. Here they are:

Albums claimed to have sold 50 million or more units (a bit of a cheat this - there is only one in the list)

Albums claimed to have sold 40 million or more units

Albums claimed to have sold 30 million or more units

Albums claimed to have sold 20 million or more units

The lists can be anything really, and a very popular one for some strange reason is about food - '50 things to eat before you die'. I'm 77% of my way through that one without even trying :-)

All the sites I mentioned above are linked to Lists of Bests. This interconnectedness is great. You have say, a list of books, and you check off the ones you've consumed (not physically 'eating' books of course, that would be absurd!). The line with the book on it goes green to indicate the change, and the item is added to your All Consuming account. You can also say whether you liked it or not at this stage. When you logon to All Consuming you can then see an overall view of everything you have selected on the Lists of Bests site - like this. In this way you can build up a nice record of everything you read/watch etc. And if you add them into All Consuming first, they also magically appear in any lists you browse on the Lists Of Bests site. Cool!

There are many other features too, like comments, and listing things you want to consume but haven't yet, and things you are currently consuming. It all fits together very neatly, and looks great too with the new Web 2.0 style of allowing updates to be handled right inside the web page with no long winded redrawing of the whole page.

The sites all use the same logon, with single sign-on too, so create your self a free account and have a play. It's quite addictive though, and you may get lost in there for several hours. You have been warned.


Posted by se71 at 03:21 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2006

Longitude - Dava Sobel

On the cover of this book, it says boldly "The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time". Having now finished reading, I think this hyperbole over-eggs the pudding somewhat in an attempt to lure readers in. Of course, it worked! This short popular science book has sold an amazing number of copies since it's first release in 1996. It's great success is down to the fact that it is short, and sticks pretty much to the point. People could see themselves finishing it, understanding the problem, and even the solution. Those readers who completely lost the plot with Stephen Hawkins' "Brief History of Time" (and that probably included just about everyone), could feel good about themselves a bit more. We have Sobel and her success to thank for allowing many other great popular science books to find publishers too I think.

But, unfortunately, it's not really a great science book.

The problem itself isn't quite as esoteric or interesting as you might think. John Harrison was a clockmaker, and he knew what he needed to do right from the start. It wasn't really a struggle to find the answer to a difficult intellectual problem. All he needed to do was build a clock that would be accurate even when positioned on a ship sailing across the Atlantic ocean. It was just a mechanical trial and error procedure, performed over years of painstaking work I admit, but not really that interesting from the outside. And he wasn't really alone, his son helped him a lot in his efforts. I'm not saying he wasn't a genius clockmaker, he did invent new methods for controlling mechanisms to measure time, but in this book the science of those discoveries is hardly covered at all.

The Longitude problem, briefly stated is this: when a ship is at sea, it is simple to measure the latitude from the positions of the stars and the sun. However, no good method existed in the 17th century for measuring the longitude. So a ship sailing across an ocean had very little idea how far towards the east or the west it had travelled. This could be disasterous and was the cause of many shipwrecks. The simple answer is to have an accurate clock on board your ship. Set it on leaving port, and each day at noon (which you can tell from the sun) check the 'real' time on the clock. From the difference in the times you can easily calculate your longitude. The difficulty with this method at the time was that no clock could be relied upon. Differences in humidity, temperature and air pressure always made the clocks of the day run fast or slow. This is the problem that Harrison solved.

There were a couple of competing theories. They involved studying the positions of the moons of Jupiter, or the transit of the moon across the sky. Both these involved lengthy comnputations (over four hours, by a clever human 'computer'). They also relied upon clear skies, and in the case of the moon, were not even possible on some days of the month when the monn didn't appear.

This is all the science you really learn in 'Longitude'. The bulk of the story is the human interest side. The British Government of the day encouraged this problem to be solved by offering up a prize of £20,000 to whoever managed it to their specification. Harrison spent nearly 50 years of his life working towards this, and only finally won three years before his death at the age of 83 (on his birthday in fact)

There were many feuds with competitors who wanted Harrison to fail. Once of these, Nevil Maskelyne, was even appointed Royal Astronomer and made a member of the Board of Longitude during his struggle. It took intervention from King George III to finally force the full prize to be rewarded. This human story is of course interesting, but it takes up far too large a portion of what is anyway a very slim volume.

So, 10/10 Dava Sobel for making popular science more popular, but only about 3/10 for actually describing the science. There aren't even any good diagrams, or schematics of the clocks themselves, which I would have thought should be a prerequisite for a book of this sort.

Posted by se71 at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2006

Revelation Space - Alistair Reynolds

**Contains Big Spoilers**

Space Opera with big ideas

This will make your head hurt if you read too much. Hardly a sentence is left untouched by some description of a technological marvel. It all gets a bit much after a while and you'll be turning to "War and Peace" for a little light relief. This is not to say that the book is boring, in fact, it's so interesting and full of ideas you won't want to put it down at all.

Getting a niggly complaint out of the way, the chapter headings are useless. They tell the date and place of the action, which would be fine, except that this changes many times during the chapter. So in the middle of the chapter the action can jump 20 years into the future, but sometimes the chapter changes and it's exactly the same time and place. No logic in a very logical book, bad.

Main characters are:

Sylveste, genius archeologist, investigating why life on the planet Resurgam was destroyed 99 thousand years previously by it's sun.

Volyova, one of the crew of a lighthugger spacecraft. This spacecraft has some hefty planet destroying weapons.

Kouri, soldier and assassin, recruited to operate weapon cache on Volyova's spacecraft, and to kill Sylveste.

There are lots of other characters, it's a big book, we'll see some of them in a minute.

The structure of the book keeps the main characters apart for the first half. A lot is hidden from us, and doesn't get revealed till the end. This keeps us reading of course, to solve the mystery.

The Shrouders are an alien race hidden in an unapproachable area of space. Sylveste finds a way to get close, and enters their 'Revelation Space'. In the same mission his assistant is killed. He goes to Resurgam to investigate why something called the Event killed all the life there thousands of years previously. Kouri is recruited by the mysterious Madamoiselle, to infiltrate the crew on Volyova's ship, and go with them to Resurgam and kill Sylveste. Volyova's captain is dying of an advanced plague, and her colleague Sajaki is taking them to Resurgam to get Sylveste. Sylveste's father Calvin, is dead, but his personality has been stored and can be implanted temporarily inside Sylvestes head. In this way he will be able to operate on Volyova's captain as Calvin is a super genius.

Are you keeping up with this...?

Once they all get to Resurgam, which is in civil war, the action shifts to a nearby neutron star and a planet orbiting it. This planet turns out to be artificial, hiding what Sylveste has come to find, and the star is not what it appears either.

There are lots of double crosses, and some minor characters get killed, and an entity called Sun Stealer takes over the ship. The revelation at the end is very good, and sets up the universe for what I expect will be a good conflict in the sequels. Look away now if you don't want to know....that the Inhibitors were a race who set up machines to kill life wherever it developed. The race on Resurgam were nearly wiped out by one of these machines, but they managed to hide it inside the planet orbiting the neatron star near Resurgam. Then they became the Shrouders. They waited hidden from the rest of the universe. When Sylveste insiltrated Revelation Space, the Shrouders entered his mind. The plan was to use him to get to the Inhibitors machine to see if it was still working. If it was of course mankind would get wiped out. If not, then the Shrouders could come back to normal space. The Madamoiselle was the other person on Sylveste's trip to the Shrouders and didn't die. She realised this plan, though Sylveste was unaware of what he was doing. She decided he had to be killed, to save the rest of humanity.

It's a very thought-provoking book, very intense, and it nearly all makes sense. Sajaki is not dealt with very well though. He is feared immensely, and when he tries to scan Kouri's mind, a precedure likely to kill her, she hardly complains. volyova is mortally afraid of him too. And yet, all it takes in the end is a bracelet with knives that dig into his wrist to totally disable him. He is a synthetically enhanced human, with nano healers in his blood, and the hand is back to normal in hours, so why didn't he fight. He also gets disposed of unceremoniously by Sun Stealer soon afterwards. By the way, Sun Stealer is a Shrouder entity, passed into the ships computer by a mind interface with Sylveste.

Thinking about it, perhaps as Volyova and Kouri travel towards Resurgam, it seems that they are 20 years behind in time, but perhaps they occupy the same time, and the sub-light speed relativity effects bring them forward. So the whole book's action really is chronological.

There is so much to say, I've left out loads of important stuff, but I'd advise you to read this one if you like hard science fiction novels in the Arthur C Clark, Peter F Hamilton vein.

[note: this review was written over two years ago. I've now finished the trilogy and hope to put up reviews of the other books soon. The review I'm not that happy with really, as rereading it now, even I am struggling to unnderstand what was going on. A more general description of the story would have been better.]

Posted by se71 at 01:34 PM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2006

Desperation - Stephen King

I always used to read my Stephen King books in order of publication. Somewhere along the line I started to get behind. Recently I've been tempted to read a few of the newer ones, and I've been a bit disappointed by them. But my plan was always to go back, and so last week I picked up Desperation off the shelf and dived in.

I love not knowing anything about a book before I start. I completely avoid reading the blurb on the back if I can. I think, in terms of suspense, thriller and horror books particularly, that when you know for example that this is a 'vampire' book, your experience is lessened. You start right away thinking that each odd occurrence is probably a vampire, or every strange person is a blood sucking beast. Your mind is already tunnelling towards a conclusion, and is not open to the other possibilities, dead ends, traps and red herrings that the author has worked hard sometimes to create. When I was at school I used to regularly check the US best-seller lists in Time magazine. Every time a new King novel was released, it went in there obviously, and I pre-ordered it at the library without knowing anything about it. Maybe six months would pass before a UK publication date, and I'd be first in town to get it. Everyone knows nowadays when the book 'Christine' is about, but I had no idea when I opened it. If you haven't heard about it, then go to a bookshop and read the first three pages; it's deliciously clever writing in my opinion.

So, Desperation was a surprise for me, just a picture of a black bird flying across the sky on the cover. No clues really at all. If you like your reading experiences that way, then go no further here.

Desperation is the name of a small mining town in the desert, miles from the main highway, almost competely cut off from normal civilisation. It's also the state of mind that our heros find themselves experiencing in a dramatic fight for their lives. The novel starts several days after things have started to go wrong in Desperation. A seemingly random collection of people are arrested while driving along the highway by a huge cop, and driven back to be put in jail. The violence is appalling, they think he is simply a serial killer, but he's not even normal enough for that to be true.

Realising that they are not likely to survive, the men, women, and a boy called David, manage to escape from the jail. They play a cat and mouse with their former captor, but he seems to be able to command the buzzards, jackals, scorpions and snakes. These creatures, and a mysterious storm, and a blocked road, keep them from leaving town. Obviously, it all builds up to a final showdown.

The writing is great, the characters are as usual very real and believable. Everyone reacts to the horrific things they see and experience as you might expect. If you like your gore there is plenty here to make you squirm, this is really X rated stuff. But as the story progresses, it all gets a bit mystical. David has ongoing conversations with God, who tells him what to do, and even performs miracles for him.

I like suspending my sense of disbelief to allow me to enjoy the kind of 'monsters in the dark' that horror gives us. Somehow though, putting the real biblical God into this story made me think of it as more like an old testament bible tale, rather than a modern piece of entertainment. God is a cruel God, this is the tenet on offer here, and allows horrible things to happen to nice people, often. And God moves in mysterious ways, which means that facts get revealed piecemeal. Why can't God just tell someone what to do right at the beginning, instead of revealing himself in confusing dreams, and giving people odd feelings. A strong character suddenly has a Road to Damascus moment when God pops into his head near the end of the story, and suddenly their whole character changes. I hated that.

So even though I enjoyed reading this a lot, and some of the passages make really compelling and memorable reading, I have to judge it as three quarters of a good book. I'm nearly always disappointed by the endings that King comes up with, and this one is really no different. What was the evil lurking in the quarry at Desperation? Well never really know for sure.

Update: So they've finally made a movie of this book, albeit a TV Movie. Still, it should be good and scary.

Posted by se71 at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

March 02, 2006

World Book Day

It's World Book Day today.

I've just been out to Books Etc and bought myself a new novel for the train ride home.

I suggest you do the same :-)

(it's Orson Scott Card's "Shadow of the Giant" - which he promises is the conclusion to the elongated Shadow Saga. I hope he's right this time.)

Posted by se71 at 04:17 PM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2006

Lyra's Oxford - Philip Pullman

(***Spoilers for His Dark Materials trilogy included***)

This is a complete travesty. It's a small hardbacked book, costing £9.99 in the shops - less on Amazon, but still a lot. I read it in approximately 25 minutes. What a complete rip-off, glad I borrowed it from the library.

Don't bother reading this unless you have already read the other books in the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. It's not an introduction, you'll have no idea what's going on, and you'll just spoil your experience of of reading them.

If you have read the previous trilogy, then this is just a little coda taking place two years following the action in those books. It's barely a normal chapter's worth and adds so little to be almost worthless. You basically find out that Lyra is still living in Oxford (title gives that away a bit) and that she is missing Will. There is a bit of a small plot involving a witch and an alchemist, some excitement, and then it ends. I'd recommend you just pick it up in a bookshop and read it there in a single session. You'll enjoy meeting Lyra again, and you'll save yourself some money.

Posted by se71 at 09:49 AM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2006

Dan Brown and copyright

Dan Brown is being sued for using ideas from a non-fiction book in his work of fiction novel - "The Da Vinci Code".

This is so weird; I really hope it gets thrown out of court quickly for the idiot money-grabbing ploy it is. Anything else will really destroy the speculative fiction genre.

The authors of a book called "Holy Blood - Holy Grail" say that Brown used their idea as a basis for his novel. Well, Doh! He actually mentions their work in the text, so that's a bit of a given. What we need to understand about this case is not that Brown was trying to deceive the public into thinking it was his own idea - he was taking a well established theory, and turning it into a novel. This is something science fiction authors do all the time. Isaac Asimov and other authors read about research into tachyons, sub-atomic particles that appear to travel backwards in time. They have been used as the basis of many time travel stories - should those scientists have been allowed to sue everyone for an idea?
Science is always coming up with outlandish theories, space elevators, life under the oceans of Jupiter's moons, asteroids hitting the earth. The climate change theories recently gave us the movie "The Day After Tomorrow" and the novel from Michael Crichton "State of Fear" - should royalties be due to these scientists? And in science, as with most other areas of study, was only one person responsible for the theories. Not likely.

Dan Brown didn't try to pass off the theories as his own, and the "Holy Blood - Holy Grail" authors got a healthy dose of publicity for their own outlandish book when "The Da Vinci Code" took off. They should be paying Dan Brown, not the other way round. Ideas cannot be allowed to be protected in this way. If anything comes of this case, expect a slew of further cases from the science realm, and the death of speculative fiction.

Update:
So the courts actually made the correct decision and threw this case out. The more I think about it though, the more I believe that the whole thing was a publicity stunt for the authors and publishers of both books. And the film of the book comes out in a few months too...

Posted by se71 at 08:47 AM | Comments (0)

December 13, 2005

Robert Sheckley

Sad news, one of my favourite authors has died.

Robert Sheckley helped form my science fiction views at a young age. His novel "Immortality Inc" made me think about death and religion in a new way, and his short fiction was always funny and inventive.

Some of his work was clearly influenced by drugs, but even these rambling stories showed me that a book doesn't always have to make sense, sometimes the journey can be enjoyable even if the destination is never reached (I'm talking mostly about a 'Options' here, and some of the weirder short stories)

His work is rarely found in bookshops now, though I always check. Freejack was a movie made from "Immortality Inc", but it didn't really work that well and concentrated on the action/chase theme rather than the more tricky philosophical one I remember. You might be able to still find the novel under that name. Having a big star (Mick Jagger) killed the film's credibility in the same way Sylvester Stallone damaged the Judge Dredd one.

Of course, I read nearly everything he wrote before I was 15 years old, and some of it hasn't aged as well as it might, but only last year I reread a couple of his short story collections and they held up pretty well.

Here is a list of his books that I have at home - if anyone has any others, I'd be very interested.

Immortality Inc.
The Robot Who Looked Like Me
Dimension Of Miracles
Store Of Infinity
Notions:Unlimited
Options
The People Trap
The Status Civilization
Can You Feel Anything When I Do This
Journey Of Joenes
The Alchemical Marriage Of Alistair Crompton
Hunter/Victim
Mindswap
Dramocles

Posted by se71 at 10:36 AM | Comments (0)

November 28, 2005

NaNoWriMo Update 2

I resign - NaNoWriMo has beaten me this year.

On Thursday, after another 10 hour day at work, not counting the 3 hour commute, and with still 35,000 words to go to the 50,000 total, I realised that I was never going to make it.

I was making slow but steady progress, finding myself capable of around 1000 words per hour, but not having any hours in the day to write them. Of course, if you miss one day, you end up needing twice as long the next, and it just wasn't possible, barring taking time off work or other unrealistic ideas. (one crack fuelled idea was to sit up all Saturday night with a pack of Pro-Plus - but then I remembered I was in a 5K race on Sunday morning. Real life just keeps getting in the way).

But all is not lost. I have learnt a huge amount about writing, and I do have those 15,000 words, and an idea to develop, which I didn't have when I started. Some of these ideas are general, some specific to me. Here they are in the order I think of them.

1. Even with a seemingly empty head, and no idea of character or story, I can sit down and churn out 1000 words in an hour. Maybe not great words, but quite good, with the odd nice sentence or idea.

2. I can write a scene, with dialog, to move a story forward when I know where it needs to go.

3. Keeeping track of your character's characteristics and their histories is hard. Keep separate notes. Also keep a dramatis personae of every name you mention.

4. Sometimes you can write yourself into a corner. A bit like the old Flash Gordon serials where the hero was facing certain death at the end of every episode. Unfortunately, in a normal novel, strange men with wings cannot fly down and rescue your hero every time.

5. Keeping the characters different, and not making them just do things that you already know about and do, is hard. Research, again unfortunately, is required.

6. Sometimes, you will spend a whole hour or more working on a scene or a character description, and then realise that your character wouldn't really do that. Throwing away work is hard.

7. I am very prone to writing the same thing twice. Proof reading will be required to make sure my characters don't all have the same hobbies or habits. Writing when very tired or under the influence of alcohol exacerbates this. Of course, a lot of novels have themes running through them, so I can always use that as an excuse should I need it :-)

8. 50,000 words is a lot. And it's only a short novel. Filling up a whole book with interesting stuff is a _LOT_ harder than I thought before I started. I now have more admiration for even the trashier writers than I ever had before - they managed to finish a book -hats off to them!


I'm taking a month off from writing novels now, but the experience hasn't soured me. In fact the opposite is true. Next year I'm going to attempt to finish this book, maybe writing 500 words a day to hit the 50,000 target and have a coherent novel with a beginning, middle and end. (Yes, I know, all books don't have to be like that, but I think all the good ones are). It will not be very good, but I'm working to the theory that says all first attempts at works of art should be completed quickly, and just as quickly discarded.

Then I'll spend a few months plotting the next NaNoWriMo. It's just too hard to do unless you have a plan - not just for your characters and plot, but also for your time.

Next time I'll be ready, next time I'll win!

Posted by se71 at 02:25 PM | Comments (1)

November 02, 2005

NaNoWriMo

OK, so I've started NaNoWriMo

This doesn't mean I'm going to finish, and one day in I'm feeling even less confident than I was 24 hours ago.

I've just got to remember the mantra

"It's not quality - it's quantity that counts!"

If you want to keep up with my progress, or lack of it, my id is se71

Posted by se71 at 04:04 PM | Comments (0)

July 11, 2005

Constrained

Someone on a mailing list very kindly pointed me to Constrained this morning.

I liked it so much, I decided to try my hand at some writing.

The results are here

The idea is that you write a story under some very strict rules. This forces you to think in a way you might not have done before, and helps the creative process. It works, and I like my two efforts I've done today.

Posted by se71 at 04:23 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2005

Heart Of Darkness

Heart Of Darkness - Joseph Conrad


Brooding journey into the African jungle


Famously remade into the Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, this is the original Victorian era story. The narrator tells a tale to his shipmates, whilst waiting for the tide on board ship on the Thames in London. He realtes how he journeyed to Africa, and travelled up river to find the mysterious ivory merchant, Kurtz.


As he journeys he hears of the legend that this man has become in the area, how he has managed to survive, and even thrive amongst the savages. It is a dangerous land, with only the trade in ivory making it profitable. The boat is unreliable, and the river treacherous, but they make it to Kurtz's station, only to find him dying. Though he is unwilling, they take him, but he soon dies, and is buried near the riverbank.


At 100 pages, this is a short novel, but even so it is hard reading. The narrative is repetitive, and sometimes it is possible to read half a page without taking any in at all, and so it has to be reread. The brooding menace of the jungle is maintained throughout, and the description of the exploitation of the indiginous African people is deftly handled for the audience of the day.


This is perhaps a strength, but much is left to be guessed by the reader; just why did Kurtz descend into madness, what was in the letters he left behind, how did he come to go 'native' in the jungle with such success. If you like finishing a book and having more questions than answers, then this is perfect, but if you're after an exciting adventure story, then steer well clear.


AE0

Posted by se71 at 03:17 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2005

CSI:NY

I read a book called Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham last year. It was a really good thriller, with a really original plot.

Imagine my surprise to see the first episode of CSI:NY last night with exactly the same plot. It took me a bit to realise, mostly because of the location change (London to NY of course), but once I'd twigged everything fell into place.

Searching google found this interesting blog entry. Seems I'm not the only person to notice. And Mark Billingham himself has contacted the show.

They wouldn't have a leg to stand on I expect, I cannot conceive that this plot wasn't stolen from Mark. But he's probably right not to fight it.

Posted by se71 at 04:55 PM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2005

Amazon Associates

I used to be an Amazon Associate, then there was a big patent issue with their 1-Click system, and I resigned in a huff.

The dust seems to have settled, and the world is still turning, so I've rejoined.

The Shadow Of The Wind

This is a link to the book I'm currently reading, which I'm not going to review now, but if you click on that link, then buy the book, I'll get some Amazon points!

Posted by se71 at 02:52 PM | Comments (0)