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Tue, 3 Jan 2012

December 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In December 2011 I read the following books:

1. The Centauri Device, by M. John Harrison

Adventures are an entertaining series of unpleasantnesses that happen to other people. Those having adventure thrust upon them are, in real life, unaware at the time of the entertainment and have far more important things to worry about. That adventures are actually enjoyable for the participants is a significant difference between the worlds of fiction and reality, and to read something that breaks that mould is refreshing.

John Truck, the nominatively determined protagonist (I dare not call him a hero, for he spends an awful lot of time running away) is the future's equivalent of a white van man, just scraping a living from his battered and barely legal ship, one of society's losers. A self-confessed loser too. For reasons completely outside his control he is bullied, cajoled and threatened by governments and cults who want the eponymous Centauri Device under their control. Of course, in reality it would all go horribly wrong and one of the antagonists would get their way, but Narrative demands that Truck win through - although unlike the traditional hero he does so entirely by accident and would really like to just be left alone to continue as a loser orbiting around the fringes of society. I suppose that in a way he's like General Flashman - he ends up appearing to be heroic despite spending most of the time wetting his pants with terror - although unlike Flashman he's not himself a bully and makes no effort to hide his cowardice.

So we have a splendid, refreshing story, in which at least some characters are rounded, detailed and sympathetic even if some of the antagonists are a bit less well developed. It's already excellent and verging upon getting five stars.

We also have the most superb writing. It's clear and direct, but peppered with biting commentary. For example, "he leered at a receptionist ... as long-legged and unapproachable - by losers - as any ice-princess. She smiled back politely, because that year it was polite to be polite to the underpriveleged", "for a narcotics offence ... no one could reasonably expect a lawyer, but the twenty-fourth century admits - indeed insists upon - your right to religious representation". It's also - and I was initially somewhat annoyed at this - full of surreal imagery. But that annoyance soon evaporated, when the surrealist anarchist "Pater" (is it a coincidence that his name is Latin for "father"?) is introduced. He gives the text-book definition of surrealism as his manifesto - "here we begin to guess at the nature of space ... We infer reality". Surrealism is not all about melting clocks and elephants with too many joints in their legs, it's the exploration of the underlying functioning of thought and morals, the prefix sur- meaning "the basis of". Surprise and odd juxtaposition of images are only tools for finding that basis through challenging conventional ideas.

So, it's enjoyable, which is of course the most important thing about fiction. It's populated, it's relevant to today despite being written in 1975, and it's literate. It's not just literate in terms of language, it's also historically and artistically literate. This is a superb book, and you should read it. Five stars isn't enough.

2. The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar, by Maurice Leblanc

In the beginning was the Sherlock Holmes, and many authors saw that he was good and made his author oodles of cash. And lo, the imitators did appear.

One such imitator was Maurice Leblanc, a French chap, who created Arsène Lupin, a kind of anti-Holmes. Lupin is a very clever thief and the stories are clearly intended to baffle the reader as to how he pulls off his heists, before a Holmesian "big reveal" in which all is explained. Unfortunately it's just not done anywhere near as well as in the Holmes stories. It's possible that I might think more highly of Lupin if only I hadn't read Holmes already, but I have, and so Lupin can only come off second (or actually third) best. Why third? Because there is also A. J. Raffles, created by E. W. Hornung as another anti-Holmes. Raffles is perhaps not as clever as Holmes, but the stories are better written by far than these Lupin tales.

It's possible that I'm being inappropriately harsh about Lupin. I did, after all, read his exploits in translation. But then, so will most of you, so I think that's OK.

Anyway, this collection of loosely-linked short stories is not one to read in one sitting, but it's good for dipping into occasionally. It's certainly not worth paying for but Project Gutenberg have it so you don't have to.

3. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

This is supposedly a science fiction novel, part of the essential canon that all science fiction fans should read. What rot! There's nothing science fictional about it all. It's a mixture of fantasy and western, and unlike just about all of the fantasy written these days - that is, everything post-Tolkien - it's not rubbish.

There's little depth here, but it doesn't really matter. Things like that are optional when you have an immediately engaging story which rolls along at a cracking pace, building up to a nail-biting climax. And best of all, because it was originally intended for publication in a monthly serial, it breaks down well into small chunks ideal for reading on the journey to work.

4. The Gods of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Continuing broadly speaking where the previous book left off - there's a ten year gap where nothing of interest happens apart from some kidnaps - this is, like its predecessor, a rollocking good yarn, with all the same flaws, and all the same reasons for ignoring them. Like "A Princess of Mars" before it, it was serialised and so breaks down into conveniently short chunks.

Burroughs is sometimes accused of being sexist (his female characters are often subservient and lean heavily on men to protect them) which is probably true, if no more so than anyone else of his era. He is also sometimes accused of being racist, especially because of this book where for much of the story the antagonists are black. This is unfortunate. However, it is in keeping with the conflicts in the previous book which are also between groups of different colour, but in that case they are red and green. Burroughs's blacks are indeed evil - they are egotistical cannibals who hold sway over other races by falsely claiming to be gods (but note that the evil whites in this story are also egotistical cannibals, who hold sway over others by claiming to serve the gods; both black and white are evil, red and green are good). However, it is clear that these races are really substitutes for having different species similar to how modern fantasy has its many species of intelligent humanoid - humans, elves, dwarves, orcs etc - and I don't believe that we can accuse him of racism. It simply didn't occur to many people of his era that there could be other intelligent species.


5. House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

I was dubious about the very idea of this book - a modern author writing a new Sherlock Holmes tale, even though he wrote it at the instigation of Conan Doyle's heirs. And to make things even worse, it's a novel, not a short story. The short-form Conan Doyle stories are superior to the novels.

And I'm very pleased to have been proven wrong. It is excellent. Horowitz captures Conan Doyle's - or rather, Doctor Watson's - "voice" almost perfectly, and has clearly done his research into the era and is a great fan of the original tales. What's more, he manages to get a couple of sharp criticisms of the original stories in without breaking the flow - instead they are presented as being the opinions of an older, more mature Watson, as he reflects on his career as Holmes's biographer.

The only real criticisms I have are that in the Kindle edition I read there is some poor type-setting in a couple of places, and that according to the text the book shouldn't have been published yet: the manuscript was supposedly written during the "terrible and senseless war ... on the continent" and left with instructions that it not be opened for one hundred years for reasons made clear in the text, so the earliest it could be published in accordance with Watson's instructions is 2014.

But these are insignificant little matters. This is a superb book which I recommend to all without hesitation.

6, 7 and 8. Translight, Chroniech, and Honor Thy Enemy, by Doug Farren

I am reviewing these three short novels together as one, because they tell one story in three parts. If the author were more well-known and published by a big company (I think they're self-published) then it is likely that they would all be bound together in one volume.

The problems with these books are legion. Much of the dialogue is lacking, some being downright awful; there's some easily avoidable technobabble; there are some fairly awful stereotypes, such as the Hero Engineer; some minor characters appear to have been built by a random number generator, such as "Kyle Norland" the improbably-named Icelander; but worst of all is the spelling which is just terrible. Many many homophones, such as ore and oar, and roll and role, are confused throughout. There are also a couple of apostropherrors, and confusions of military ranks (captains are promoted to commodores, not to commanders!). An editor would have picked up most, if not all, of those.

However, despite all that, I enjoyed reading them. The story is well-paced, is consistent, and has some over-arching themes which are well-developed. The theme of the first two volumes is that "we must hang together lest we be hanged separately" and that of the last two is of a hero who can't live up to society's and his own expectations, his fall from grace, and his recovery. It would be nice if the author had stuck with one theme throughout, but that would have necessarily led to a very different story. Overall I enjoyed reading these books very much, and given how cheap they are (cheap self-published books are proving to be one of the big benefits of the Kindle in my opinion) I recommend them to all sci-fi fans. Doug Farren's is a name to look out for in the future especially if he gets picked up by a major publisher and gets the editorial support he needs. But even without that, he has the makings of a fine story-teller.

9. The Blackhouse, by Peter May

Unremittingly grim throughout, from the first to the last page, this is a tale of a man coming to terms with the past that he escaped, and those that he left behind in the most dreadful poverty. It isn't the normal poverty of lack of money - that is far easier to escape - but the poverty of lack of opportunity, no intellectual life, and a repressive society. I don't know how close to reality May's portrayal of life on Lewis is, but he's done a good job of preventing me from going there - anywhere that you can't buy Sunday papers on a Sunday because of other peoples' stupid religion is not a place fit for human habitation.

It is framed as a detective story, but the meat of the book doesn't really have much to do with the investigation, and is far more to do with what that investigation throws up about the protagonist's own past and that of the friends he left behind when he escaped from Ruralistan.

The writing is top-notch, the plot clear and easy to follow, characters fully-realised and complex. The only real criticism I have is that (and I suppose I should say "spoiler alert" at this point, but it's not really much of one) having things hinge on repressed memories of child abuse seems to be intellectually lazy. It is too much the modern bogey-man. Hence only four stars for an engaging and thoroughly worthwhile book that I recommend to you all.

10. Rollback, by Robert Sawyer

Sawyer's stories are usually good fun to read. This is no exception. This time around there are two issues looked at. The first, the bones on which the story hangs, is about how SETI might work and its philosophical underpinnings. There is perhaps a bit too much earnest explanation from the characters in some occasionally ropey dialogue.

Far more interesting, however, is that it is also a meditation on the consequences of medical technology: in brief summary, after 60 years of happy marriage, a couple undergo a new medical procedure to rejuvenate them, supposed to return them to how they were when aged 25, but it only works on one of them.

The book approximately alternates chapters between exploring SETI and exploring rejuvenation, and of the two interwoven streams, that of rejuvenation is by far the most interesting, but it could not stand without the other without losing its immediate accessibility.

Highly recommended.

11. The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

Some reviewers have criticised this for being "insulting". It is anything but. It is a tender, gentle portrayal of the Queen. Yes, it shows her as being initially a damned illiterate Philistine, but in that she is hardly unique - almost all of her fellow British citizens are in real life, and all of her staff and government are in this fiction. But it also shows her as being able to cure herself of that terrible condition, of having the gumption to outwit those who would rather she remain so, and of being socially liberal. That isn't insulting, it's downright respectful to portray someone as being resourceful and intelligent!

Like much of Bennett's work, there is a gentle humour throughout, much of which comes from the conflict between our ignorant assumptions of the real Queen's habits and beliefs and those of the very different character Bennett has created. But most importantly, far more important than it being entertaining (which it is), or it being beautifully written (it's that too), it is a paean to the joy of reading, and that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you enjoy it.

I bought this on my Kindle on Christmas Eve at my father's recommendation, read it all the way through in one sitting, and loved it so much that I promptly ordered the hardback edition as well. I know that you'll love it too.

12. Red Star Rising, by Anne McCaffrey

This is the next (in chronological order, as opposed to publishing order) volume in McCaffrey's long and commercially successful "Pern" series, after "First Fall" and covers events leading up to the predicted second fall of "thread", her world's mindless and unstoppable bogeyman. Society has regressed to a semi-feudal state, with rich lords and subordinate peasants, and the beginnings of a guild system. Most technology has been lost and that which remains is poorly understood and decaying. Finally, literacy is being lost as most people have more important things to do working the land than sending their children to school. With all of this in mind, a surprising amount of space is given in the book to an overhaul of the education system, in which song is to now be used as the medium of education. There is precedent for this in history, but it didn't teach critical thinking or the sciences - it taught mythology, propaganda, and simple techniques by rote such as crop rotation and weather lore. This is education, in the sense of the imparting of knowledge, but it is such limited knowledge and it fails to address any of the more important aspects of education, that many modern readers will rightly scoff at the ridiculous notion. Supposedly this is terribly important for developments in Pern's society over the next umpty hundred years, but if it is, then the way it's handled is a bit clumsy and unconvincing.

That is, however, a side issue. The meat of the story is a tale of political and legalistic maneuvring between lords with confusing names (many of them suffering from Stupid Alien Name Syndrome which only serves to make it harder to remember who is who). From this seemingly infertile and stony soil, a decent tale-crop is harvested. This book is an enjoyable read, but I have to deduct points for the seemingly pointless digression into educational policy and for the stupid names.

13. House of Reeds, by Thomas Harlan

Most that I have to say about this book I've already said before about its prequel, "Wasteland of Flint": it's entertaining, imaginative, well-written, slightly spoiled by silly mysticism and by utterly improbable sensitivity of some characters to the minutest details, rather like some of the more absurd superpowers that Frank Herbert's "Bene Gesserit" cult have in the "Dune" book. I don't think, however, that it could stand on its own, so I only recommend it for those of you who have already read the prequel.

14 and 15. Flash Gold and Hunted, by Lindsay Buroker

These two very short stories are set in the same milieu and follow directly one after the other, so I'm reviewing them together.

They are both delightfully silly, set in an alternate version of the Yukon during the gold rush of the 1890s. Alchemy and a small amount of magic work in this reality, and are used by the protagonist to power machines - and are very much desired by her enemies. At the time of writing, you can buy both for under a pound, and given how cheap they are (the first being not just cheap but free!) and how enjoyable, we can completely ignore what weaknesses they have. Buroker is another of those very promising authors who I wouldn't have discovered without the Kindle.

Posted at 16:28 by David Cantrell
keywords: books
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