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Tue, 3 Aug 2010

July 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In July 2010 I read the following books:

1. War in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb

The part played by the Fleet Air Arm in the second World War is little known, and this very accessible, clearly written autobiography by one of its pilots who served in some of the FAA's most important theatres does a very good job of bringing the FAA to greater attention.

It breaks down broadly into two sections: first, Lamb's time as a Swordfish pilot, predominantly in the Mediterranean theatre; and second, after a clandestine mission to land a spy in Vichy-controlled French North Africa went wrong, his year as an internee of the supposedly-neutral Vichy French regime, during which he and his fellow prisoners were treated badly. In both he shows courage and significant independent thinking. This is then followed by a very short summary of everything that happened between his repatriation and retirement, including his role in the Pacific theatre and in the Royal Navy in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

This is definitely a better biography than Wings on my Sleeve by his fellow FAA flyer, Eric Brown, as it actually contains a narrative story (well, two of them, one after the other, as noted above) whereas Brown's work (which is also worth reading, incidentally) reads more as simply a series of disconnected episodes: it comes close to being just a "shopping list" of planes that he'd flown.

2. Churchill's Cigar, by Stephen McGinty

This fairly short book - only 200 pages, with large margins and not-quite double-spaced - consists mostly of rather charming stories of people fawning over Churchill and giving him extravagant gifts. There's little about the man here, or about the war he led us through, and not even all that much about his cigars aside from the fact that he smoked an awful lot of them. Overall, there's little to recommend in this book, although it does make for a short pleasant diversion.

3. The Philosophical Strangler, by Eric Flint

I read this because someone compared it to Pratchett - and, at that, to Pratchett's work 15 or more years ago, when he was still writing new stuff and not just recycling his earlier work. To me, Pratchett really went off the boil after Small Gods and I've not bought much of his stuff since. Of course, I'd take most comparisons to Pratchett-at-his-prime with a hefty pinch of salt, but this was someone whose opinions I trust.

That said, I've read some other Flint, and while some of it was fun (1632 in particular is fun rubbish), shallow writing with little believable development is his trademark. How lucky for me, then, that The Philosophical Strangler, like 1632, is part of the Baen Free Library.

The Philosophical Strangler is supposed to be a single story, and in a sense it is - each page leads to the next, throughout the entire book. But it feels more like a series of humourous fantasy shorts, all revolving around the same two main characters, with the links between them only tenuous at best. A handful of those shorts are pretty good, with one or two being laugh-out-loud funny. But most are no more than average, with a fair number being pretty bad and one being almost unreadable dreck.

If it really were presented as a collection of shorts, with the tweaking of intro and ending that each would then get and the tightening that would come from it, I could just about recommend this, but as it is, I can't. Not even when you can read it online for free.

4. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

This is another collection of short stories connected by a tenuous theme - they're the stories told by someone's tattoos - but this time it's intended to be a bunch of shorts, and most of them are good, a few are outstanding, only a couple are bad, and none are awful. And three are utterly brilliant. Originally published a couple of zears before Fahrenheit 451, the connections are obvious in two of the stories - two of the best stories at that.

The theme of the man of the title's tattoos provides a nice lead-in to the first story, and the epilogue provides a satisfactory end, but in all honesty those two sections could have been dropped entirely. I'd not be at all surprised to find that the individual stories have also been published independently of them.

The stories are a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, almost all of them character-based, most concentrating on human weaknesses and relationships. The successful ones, however, do have at least some action in them too: it's only the two stinkers in which nothing happens except blathering.

Note that the UK and US editions differ: I read the UK edition, which omits four stories from the US version and adds two others. As it happens, I feel that the two added are amongst the best in the book. The link above is to this edition.

5. Ragamuffin, by Tobias Buckell

After reading Buckell's Crystal Rain a coupla years ago when Tor gave it away as a promo for the newly-released-in-paperback Ragamuffin and just-published Sly Mongoose, and liking it a lot, I finally got round to buying both Ragamuffin and Crystal Rain recently. While Ragamuffin is a sequel, it would also work very well as a stand-alone book. Someone reading it without having also read Crystal Rain won't get quite as much out of it and may miss some details, but would still enjoy it.

Where Crystal Rain was steampunk, Ragamuffin is space opera, chock full of splendidly heroic human freedom-fighterss, dastardly evil aliens (and their human minions), and lots of action. But it also has, like its predecessor, well-rounded people, and a consistent well-thought-out universe for them to inhabit. Definitely worth buying.

6. The Trials of Arthur, by Arthur Pendragon and C. J. Stone

As I've written before, "yes, that's really the author's name". Arthur is a neo-druid and a campaigner for the sort of things that unwashed hippies campaign for, and so would normally deserve (and get) my scorn. But throughout this book you get a great sense of honesty and passion, and most importantly that he is an honourable man. I think that I'd like him, that I'd buy him a drink if we ever meet, and that we'd then have a flaming row while we drank our beer.

The book is obviously mostly written by Mr. Stone, who also writes for numerous newspapers and magazines. Thankfully, there's none of that newspapery rubbish here. The writing is unashamedly hagiographical, without (unlike newspapers) trying to pretend to be otherwise. You feel that he is writing from the heart. The style takes a few pages to get used to, but it's an easy, clear read, with a clear sequence of events: just what you want from a biography.

I loved The Wizard of New Zealand's autobiography, and this book will now take pride of place alongside it. It's not great, but it's worth reading, especially if you can pick it up cheap.

7. The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell

Oh god, it's a popular pseudo-historical novel. And it's just as bad as I expected. As is required by law in this genre, Our Hero loses everything while still young, grows to adulthood, meets many important people, and becomes a great hero. By the end, he's saved the day, with a revenge sub-plot left dangling for the no-doubt uncountable sequels. Sorry if I just gave away the entire plot. The history and culture has been, umm, pepped up (OK, it's a load of balls to tell the truth) for dramatic purposes, of course, and as a result we are left with dramatic action, one or two people, and a load of cardboard cutout caricatures.

So this is not a very good book. I wouldn't bother buying it if I were you, but it's good entertainment to get from the library or second-hand, read once, and never think about again.

8. The Pale Horseman, by Bernard Cornwell

Carrying on where the previous book left off, this sequel is just as bad as its predecessor, for all the same reasons. And like its predecessor, it's a good once-off entertainment, not worth paying full price for.

9. Lords of the North, by Bernard Cornwell

Again, this follows straight on the heels of its predecessor, but with a key difference: the vast majority of the story is set amongst people and in a land which is not very well known these days and which is very poorly documented in comparison to its prequels. And the story is much improved by it. Now that he's no longer tied to working with real people and doesn't have to force the story down particular paths all the time, Cornwell can give reign to his imagination. A much better book all round. However, it still only gets three stars. If I thought it could stand alone then it might just squeak four, but I don't think it can quite stand up well enough on its own.

10. Sword Song, by Bernard Cornwell

The story now moves back to places and people that are more well-known, although much of the tale has been constructed entirely by Cornwell, with nods here and there to real history. The story isn't much constrained by reality, and so has the potential to be, like the third installment in the series, better than the earlier volumes. Unfortunately, what's made up is rather ridiculous, and has some inconsistencies with what has gone before, by which the book is dragged back down to mediocrity.

11. The Trade of Queens, by Charles Stross

This, the sixth and last installment in the series, suffers from the same problems as the fifth book, and suffers from them in spades. It's very disappointing that such a good series should deteriorate like this. The politicking is still there (although perhaps not as much as the previous volume) but the silliness, culminating in nuclear carpet-bombing, is just so ridiculously over the top as to offend my sensibilities, even allowing for the fact that it's fiction and for dramatic suspension of disbelief.

I almost gave this just one star but it's just about pulled up to two by the fact that it's pretty much required reading if you've already got this far - just be prepared to be disappointed, even if you weren't disappointed (and you should have been) by the previous installment.

The end is somewhat intriguing and sets up more potential sequels, which may be improved by having had the obnoxious feudalism killed off along with all its incomprehensible politicking. There's a few interesting directions in which it could go, depending on which of the loose ends Stross decides to follow up on, if at all - on his blog he says "I'm not ruling out writing more books in that universe — but I'm taking a couple of years of time out first, and if and when go back to there, it'll be with a new story and mostly new characters". Good, it could do with a partial reboot.

Posted at 20:43 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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