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Tue, 30 Jun 2009

June 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In June 2009, I was blessed with unemployment so had lots of time. I read the following books:

1. The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross

Carrying on from where the first book in the series left off, this is really the second half of the story that the previous volume started. As such, it makes some things rather clearer which were just confusing in the first installment, although not all - but then, there are more sequels to come. Overall, this and its predecessor combine to make one satisfying story which I have no hesitation in recommending to you.

But that's a recommendation for the two books together. This one won't work well in isolation.

2. The Clan Corporate, by Charles Stross

Number three in the series, this book really takes its time to get going, but after a hundred pages of meh it picks up and is back to the pace and quality of its pre-decessor. Again, like The Hidden Family this is the first half of a larger story that got split for some reason, but the split is handled better this time, ending on a nice cliff-hanger but without too many loose ends. As the third installment in a large series, there is of course the problem of how to bring a new reader up to speed who hasn't read the earlier volumes, but this is done without the repetition being too irritating for someone who has started at the beginning. My only niggle is that some exposition is handled somewhat maladroitly as "transcripts" of bugged conversations, but these transcripts (and the organisations and people making them) aren't obviously used. Perhaps they'll show up in a later volume. But I can forgive this, as to a large extent these solve the problem I noted in The Family Trade, that the plots and schemes within plots and schemes are too opaque to the reader. These serve to remove the veils somewhat. Again, I recommend it, but with the proviso that it will work a lot better if you've read the previous two books.

3. The Merchants' War, by Charles Stross

Starting at the moment the previous volume left off, there's not much to say about this volume other than that it's full of juicy goodness, and again ends on something of a cliff-hanger. It was great fun to read, suffering from the well-known problem good books have of keeping me awake until sunrise as I compulsively turned the pages. BAD AUTHOR, NO BIKKIT! But I don't think it'll work at all in isolation. Recommended if you've read the previous books, but not otherwise.

4. Eagle Rising, by David Devereux

This second book in what is so far a thoroughly enjoyable series is perhaps even better than the first. The protagonist is an utter bastard, who knows full well that what he does is morally questionable, but does it anyway for the greater good. His character is reinforced by the writing style - the story is told in the first person in a very matter-of-fact voice.

The story moves along well at a good pace, with with lots of action to back up "Jack"'s thorough investigation of his targets, and this should appeal both to lovers of scifi/fantasy and to fans of action heroes such as James Bond. Two thumbs up!

5. The Odyssey, by Homer

Having recently read The Iliad it's only sensible to move on to the Odyssey. The Odyssey is a much more approaching book for a modern reader. Of the flaws I noted in the Iliad, all are either absent or minimised in the Odyssey. There is still some waffle, although nowhere near as much, and characters are prone to speechifying when a simple "thankyou" would suffice.

The only real criticisms I have are that there is a ridiculous amount of gift-giving; that Odysseus is a pathological liar; and that the end is very abrupt.

On the first point: yes, I am aware that the story is set in a radically different society to that which we are now blessed with, and that people often demonstrate their wealth by ostentatious generosity. However, I think this goes too far. For example, while staying with the Phaeacian king, he is not only given gifts by the king, butthe king commands everyone else present to also give him equally generous gifts.

The second, while playing a legitimate part in the story, as it is through guile and deceit that Odysseus gains admittance to his own home as it is being despoiled by yahoos, is taken too far and shows the hero in a poor light. In particular, when he is finally reunited with his father, Odysseus tells outrageous lies, putting his father in some distress. I'm afraid I'm with the Romans on this, Odysseus was a really rather obnoxious and dishonorable fellow.

Even so, you should, obviously, read this.

6. Riotous Assembly, by Tom Sharpe

A very silly satire of apartheid-era South Africa, this is well worth reading.

7. By Schism Rent Asunder, by David Weber

The second installment in Weber's "Safehold" series is just as enjoyable as the first. As I expected, he has rather condensed real-world history, combining the Henrician reformation and the beginning of the industrial revolution into one movement. The story moves along at a surprisingly swift pace, given that there is little of the action that permeated the first volume.

There are also very obvious parallels with some of the author's "Honorverse" series. But this does not detract from the story - the concepts are re-worked to fit in with the different background, and the very well done world-building means that those parts still feel fresh.

The only real criticisms I had are that it finishes on a very annoying cliff-hanger, unlike the previous book, and so can't be read in isolation. And another barrier to reading it in isolation in that there is precious little background information on "Merlin" and the society's technological proscriptions, until quite a way in.

Definitely worth reading, but you should read the previous volume first.

8. Ruled Britannia, by Harry Turtledove

Predictably for Turtledove, this is an enjoyable "alternate history" of little literary merit. The premise is that the Spanish Armada succeeded, England has been ruled by Spanish puppets for a decade, and now plotters are scheming to put Elizabeth I back on the throne, using Shakespeare's plays to stir up the mob. The book is therefore replete with puns and lines lifted straight from Shakespeare's oeuvre - Turtledove has clearly done his research, and judging by his notes at the end I probably missed quite a bit that he lifted from lesser-known Elizabethan sources. Those borrowings will definitely raise a chuckle from the literate reader, at least to start with. However, that reader will end up irritated by the dialogue, which is almost entirely rendered in faux-Elizabethan stage-English. It doesn't detract much from the story though so if you can grit your teeth and carry on, this is worth a read. Once.

9. David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd

I bought this as a present for a friend's sprog, mostly on the recommendation of another author, David Weber, who raved about it in some notes at the end of one of his books. In the end, I didn't give it, as I thought, having read the first few pages, that the book was, at the time, a little advanced for the kiddy in question. But now a coupla years later I've finished reading it myself. As it's a childrens' book, it is of course a very simple tale. But it is charmingly told, in plain simple English, and was a pleasant diversion for a couple of hours even for cynical old me. Worth buying.

10. The Ethical Engineer, by Harry Harrison

Very much a product of its time (it was published in 1964), this is nevertheless a good read. That's despite the heroic spaceman being ever so heroic and resourceful, capable of arguing ethics, wielding a broadsword, fixing a steam engine and familiar with all branches of primitive science. There are continuity errors, and even obviously ridiculous points such as people speaking Esperanto, but at its core there is a story of human ingenuity and relationships being used to surmount technological difficulties. Which is what good sci-fi always boils down to.

11. News From Nowhere, by William Morris

Yes, that William Morris. This is his attempt at writing a Utopia. The world he describes is a rural "idyll" which doesn't look particularly idyllic to me, in which private property has been abolished. As a window into Morris's mind, it's really quite good - his naivety, scorn of science, worship of those who work the land, and his extreme Luddism come through loud and clear. But as a novel it's really not very good. It consists mostly of rather stilted expository dialogue, all the major characters speaking with the same voice and agreeing strongly with each other. Apart from lots of jawing, little happens. It is worth reading as a way of getting to know the man behind the artworks, but I'm really glad that it's so short.

12. Lammas Night, by Katherine Kurtz
If ever you needed proof that you can judge a book by its cover, this is it. Certainly if I'd seen the cover before buying it second-hand I'd not have wasted my money on this rubbish - the cover art is a map of Europe superimposed on a swastika, surrounded by candles, and impaled with a dagger. And it's all about how Hitler's invasion of the UK was thwarted by witches. Oh dear. So, the author starts with a stupid idea for a plot, and then it gets worse. Relationships between characters are not clear, the most ridiculous conspiracies are only found out when convenient, and the reader does not feel the slightest bit of sympathy for the characters no matter how hard they wail.
Posted at 20:23 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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