Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Well, it's been quite awhile since I posted here. However, that's not because I haven't been reading! In recent months I've reread the works of James Clavell and several of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.

I attempted to read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova but gave up as my memory problems were making it somewhat arduous. However, I will go back to it in the future as I did enjoy the parts i can remember (it's a sort of vampire/ historic novel, I suspect with a twist in it somewhere beyond where I read up to!).

I did manage The Last Legion by Valerio Massimio Manfredi which I thoroughly enjoyed; in fact I've ordered another of his novels from the library! The story is of the young Emperor Romulus Augustus fleeing the Empire under the protection of a grizzled veteran legionnaire and an aged druid from Britannia.... it gives a different spin to the Arthurian legend which was interesting. But the novels great strength lies in the ease with which the author evokes the Roman world. He uses few words to paint vivid pictures; he depicts the minutiae of working life in the ancient world with an ease and confidence which feels almost documentary rather than fiction. I later discovered that Manfredi is an Italian Professor of History and Archaeology - so it's hardly surprising his knowledge of Roman life is so impressive! That said what I absolutely enjoyed the most about this book was the following, taken from the acknowledgements:

"....and to Giancarla at Freccia's Bar, whose matchless espresso always starts my day off right."

The bulk of my reading time has been occupied trolling through Terry Brooks' Shannara Chronicles. This huge slab of epic fantasy managed to slip under my radar in my youth, so I thought I would catch up on it now. It's not too taxing (!) and is hugely formulaic, which really helps with my poor memory - I can guess what I've forgotten! The stories are moderately engaging and, although two-dimensional, you know what you're getting with the characters which is comforting. So far I've waded through 5 of the books and have 2 to go (I knw there are later ones as well but frankly I've nearly had enough), so the end is in sight!

I'm sure I've reaad other stuff as well but I can't remember what!

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Friday, June 22, 2007

'Only You Can Save Mankind' by Terry Pratchett, 1992

For plot info etc see here.

After reading a couple of lengthy novels I fancied something much shorter and more familiar. This is not one of my favourite Pratchett's but it is very short and I have read it several times.

I do like Johnny Maxwell. He's a bit of a junior 'everyman' and tends to be more thoughtful than those around him. His group of friends are engaging as well. They are all misfits who have collected together - this seemed to be a clique in most schools I attended.

I like the descriptions of the aliens - the Scree Wee- who are typical computer game aliens; ie they are hopeless at fighting back.

This is a good addition to the other Johnny Maxwell books, although it is not as rounded as 'Johnny and the Bomb', and it greatly lacks the elegance of the Discworld novels. However, it is aimed at younger readers and is short enough to hold their attention.

Remember: "Actual games shots taken from a version you haven't bought".

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'Gai-Jin' by James Clavell, 1993

For plot info etc see here.

Although this novel is chronologically the third in the Asian Saga it was Clavell's final novel. It is rather sombre and pessimistic in tone throughout. Given that it is based loosely on the Anglo-Satsuma war, and that war is impending throughout, its doomladen atmosphere is understandable. However, this made it a hard book to like initially. It is as if Clavell's love affair with Japanese culture is over. He subtly portrays how European, and increasingly American, concepts of mercantilism, profit and business have infected Japanese culture, to the detriment of all that he so clearly admired in the other novels. It feels as if he has become somewhat bitter about western influences....

This is a good story and is as well written as his other novels. The story moves along quite rapidly. I liked how the character of Tess Struan is so overshadowing, but she never actually appears! Much of the story is tinged with sadness and loss - the world is changing and many are being left behind. The values of bushido are all but lost and where they do survive are increasingly irrelevant in the face of overwhelming capitalism.

I didn't find this as easy a read as the other novels mainly, I think, because of the pessimism throughout. There is a rather harrowing rape scene early on which actually made me feel a bit ill; partly because the perpetrator is a samurai. This would have been unthinkable in 'Shogun'!

I would recommend this to those who have enjoyed other novels in the Asian Saga, but I wouldn't start with this one!

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'Shogun' by James Clavell, 1975

For details of plot etc see here.

This is the second time I have read Shogun, the first of six novels from Clavell's Asian Saga. I remember being so gripped by it the first time around that I would stay up well into the early hours reading. The second time was no different!

It is quite a lengthy novel, but it is always gripping and the action is fluidly described and moves along at a good pace. My favourite elements are the culture clashes between Elizabethan Europe and bushido; definitions of honour are quite disparate between the two! I also liked how the catholic church is protrayed and how much of a threat a single Protestant is seen to be.

My one annoyance, and this is true of the rest of the Asian Saga, is that the book just ends. The final passage jumps forward a little in time, but you are left to surmise what has happened by backtracking from later novels.... a little frustrating.

I've realised that most of my understanding of Japanese history and culture stems from this novel! That surely isn't a good thing.

However, it is a great read. Clavell's writing style is fluid and pleasurable. He captures the essence of the characters through their dialogue brilliantly. Afte awhile you don't have to be told who is speaking - you know from their mode of speech etc. I would have liked a map of Japan somewhere in the edition as I kept referring to one in an atlas to see where places are!

When I first read this I didn't realise that it does echo real events in Japan's history. A second reading felt more satisfying with this knowledge.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes hsitorical fiction, although I think most people would find something they enjoy in it.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

'Transmetropolitan' by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, 1997-2002

See here for plot outline etc.

As I've said previously I am not that au fait with the graphic novel. This series was recommended to me by friends and then name-dropped in an interview with Joss Whedon, so I thought i'd give it a go.

Although set in a dystopian future the story clearly echoes US politics of the Nixon era. Spider Jerusalem is clearly a homage to Hunter S Thompson and 'gonzo' journalists.

The art work is superb and the story is gripping and unfolds logically. It is quite a biting satire that has a go at religion, social values, morality and largely, consumerism.

However, it has made little lasting impression on me. It is quite an accurate parody of real events but doesn't feel to make much of a point about anything. The story didn't really hit me on an emotional level, mainly because I just couldn't bond with Spider.

At times it felt like the writer was trying too hard and it felt forced and pretentious. I am left with the simple question "what was the point?". The references will be lost on those not familiar with that era in US politics and those who are won't get anything much new from this interpretation.

Still, good artwork and a good story.

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'Predator' by Patricia Cornwell, 2005

See here for a plot outline and links to reviews.

I enjoyed this considerably more than 'Trace'. The relationships between the characters are essentially breaking down so everyone is on edge and jumpy. Although one narrative strand is from the killers point of view you don't really get into their head until the very end when a major revelation forces you to re-evaluate all that went before. The plot is more concrete than in 'Trace' and there is considerably less ambiguity. The pacing works better as well. The characters still seem a bit 2-dimensional and the dialogue is at its best during arguments! The only loose ends left untied are the relationships within what was previously a closeknit group..... things seem to be unravelling and trust has been shattered all around. the follow up could be interesting!

Worth reading if youi like crime/forensic thrillers, otherwise don't bother.

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'Trace' by Patricia Cornwell, 2004

See here for plot outline and links to reviews.

I only read this because I enjoyed some of Kathy Reich's novels and thought they might be similar. Wrong.

I found this meandering and disjointed. The mixed perspective narrative was clumsy and awkward. Much was implied rather than made explicit which I found increasingly infuriating. The character read like cardboard cut outs and fail to be engaging or sympathetic.

Forensic science works better on TV for me I think!

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'Eragon' and 'Eldest' by Christopher Paolini, 2003 and 2005

See here and here for plot outlines and links to reviews.

I really wanted to like these books. The first was written by a guy in his teens and made into a movie... surely it can't be that bad. Well, they certainly aren't great. The writing style isn't as noticeably pretentious as I expected; there are some passages that have been written thesaurus in hand however. A lot of the dialogue is worse than Star Wars and does not sound real at all.

The story, characters, events all feel very familiar. In fact it borrows heavily from Star Wars and LOTR and falls into all the cliches of "epic fantasy". Its even going to be a trilogy - the biggest cliche of all! To be fair I found it compelling reading at times and I often wanted to find out what would happen next, even though I had a pretty good idea. The idea of using magic instead of shaing I found original (and rather sensible) but that was the one original idea. As usual the books are filled with made up names for people and places.... apart from Angela, whose name sticks out like a sore thumb!

I suppose I will read the final installment at some point but I won't be too disappointed if I forget.

If you like your epic-fantasy cliched and unoriginal then you may enjoy this. Otherwise, see the movie - it will be over quicker.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

'The Children of Men' by P.D. James (1992)

I borrowed this from the library after seeing and enjoying the recent movie (starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine). The book is very different to the movie but raises similar issues.

The story takes place in England in the near future. Throughout the world no children have been born for 25 years as all men have become infertile. No cause for this has been found. The protagonist is an Oxford History professor now aged about 50 named Theo. Through his eyes we see how a depressed nation is handling the approach of the end of mankind. Many settlements and roads have been abandoned as there are not the numbers to need them or maintain them. The Council of England, governed by Theo's remote, godlike cousin, Xan, arrange mass suicides and endeavour to keep people's spirits up. It is hinted that this is not the case in other parts of the world where sacrificial blood rites have reappeared.

Theo is then approached by a small group of dissidents who want to use him to voice their concerns to his cousin. Intitially, the Five Fishes as they call themselves, appear to be inept, disorganised complainers. However, the Council take heed of their actions (which includes disrupting a mass suicide) and Theo is warned of further contact with them. It is at this point that one of the group reveals that she may be pregnant......

I really enjoyed this book. The best passages described life in an ageing nation with no young people around to provide care or even a reason for existence. The schools ahve all been boarded up, the playgrounds removed. Mental illness is common in women of child bearing age and many now purchase realistic dolls which are replaced every six months with the next size up. The sense that the country is 'winding down' to disappear is prevalent and rather unsettling. Nature is taking back the land - driving on many roads in now hazardous as they have fallen into disrepair, and forests have an almost primeval sense of dark foreboding.

Theo is not always likeable, but then he doesn't appear to like himself. But he is a keen observer and the emotional aspect of the situation, and how different people have reacted to it, is eloquently explored. A world without children seems eerily quiet and still. The narrative switches from Theo's diary passages (a device that at first seemed laboured and awkward but settles down quickly) to a third person narrative. Some insight into Theo's psyche is provided and I wonder if he goes along with the Five Fishes partly to introduce some noise and activity into his stultified life; boredom seems to be the usual condition.

The movie handles the same themes differently and is well worth watching. It focusses less on the minutiaie of an absent future (eg museums debating what to do with artefacts that there will never be anyone to view) and more on the politics of the situation (everyone being issued with suicide pills for example). I enjoyed both the film and the book but for different reasons. I admit I have a penchant for those novels/movies where mankind seems to teeter on the brink of extermination (eg 'The Day of the Triffids', 'The Kraken Wakes', 'The Death of Grass', 'The Day After Tomorrow' etc) and this fits neatly in to that trend. However, it ends on a fairly optimistic note!

Apart from the good story, and some thought of how essential it is that the old can rely on the young both for physical and emotional comfort, I'm not sure if there is a clear subtext. There are shades of Darwinism and eugenics within the story. The government is a near-fascist dictatorship which relies strongly on the charisma of its leader and, in their inept way the Five Fishes could be seen as freedom fighters. Science, described as the new god of the twentieth century, has ultimately failed and has not been able to save mankind. Most of humanity has reverted to barbarism in the face of impending doom. But the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about these facets - as indeed we are about the future of humanity.

Wikipedia has a very detailed narrative description here which includes spoilers.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

'Men At Arms' by Terry Pratchett (1993)

For a brief synopsis go here.

For me this is the start of what I think of as 'the really good Discworld novels'! Sam Vimes starts to feature prominently and the politics of Ankh-Morpork are now consistent. Carrot is further explained as is his relationship with Angua. Some events in later books are foreshadowed here and we get an insight into the workings of the Assassins Guild....

This is one of my fasvourite Discworld novels. It starts to feel comforting and familiar; the characters are now behaving consistently which allows for the stories to develop more satisfyingly in the next few novels. Both leonard of Quirm and the patrician himself are more satisfyingly fleshed out in this book. Perhaps not a good starting place for Discworld newbies but a very good read all the same.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

'The Fifth Elephant' by Terry Pratchett (1999)

Thanks to Wikipedia for the synopsis.

"Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork and Duke of Ankh, thought that things were bad enough when he was forced to go to Überwald—a largely wild territory—on a diplomatic mission. That was before he found himself entangled in a plot to spark the dwarf equivalent of a holy war, not to mention running naked in the frozen wastelands of Überwald with werewolves on his trail.
The plot concerns the appointment of a new king of Dwarfs (the Low King). It is a controversial choice and the cause of a rift forming in the Dwarf community. Lord Vetinari sends Vimes as the Duke of Ankh-Morpork to be an ambassador along with Detritus and Corporal Littlebottom - the idea being Trolls and Dwarfs are ethnic majorities in Überwald, where the Low King resides. Littlebottom is not a typical dwarf, as she accepts her gender and even wears a dress, which is highly offensive to the conservative dwarf society. Accompaining them as both guard and spy is Inigo Skimmer, a scholarship boy from the Assassin's Guild school (the requirements for such a scholarship being left unsaid).
Once in Überwald Vimes finds his relationships with Dwarfs, Vampires and Werewolves very different from the ones he experiences back home and also finds the 'Scone of Stone' (a large piece of dwarf-bread the Low King MUST be crowned on, q.v.Stone of Scone) has been stolen. Perhaps there is a link to the recent theft of a replica of the Scone in Ankh-Morpork, and the murder of a manufacturer of prophylactics in that city. Vimes must use his detective skills to solve the mystery of the Scone, while trying to stay alive.
A sub-plot involves Carrot Ironfoundersson and Gaspode the Wonder-dog going in search of Carrot's werewolf girlfriend Angua. The simultaneous absence of both Vimes and Carrot from the city watch requires one of the existing watchmen to be promoted. Sergeant Fred Colon is the senior officer, and so is made Acting Captain. Colon is not comfortable being a leader, and deals with the position very badly, becoming excessively strict and paranoid as the Watch crumbles around him.
The novel gives more detail on werewolf society, including the concept of yennorks, werewolves who cannot shapeshift, and are permanently in human or animal form. It also explores the society of dwarfs on the Disc, introducing the drudak'ak (which roughly translates as "they who do not get out in the fresh air much"), conservative dwarfs who are the keepers and interpreters of dwarf law.
This is the fifth Discworld novel starring Vimes and the City Watch. Also starring Dwarfs, Werewolves, Vampires and Battle-Bread."

This is the 23rd Discworld novel and is actually one of my favourites. I like the development of dwarf culture, the expansion of the Igors and the Transylvania-esque setting. I particularly like the emphasis on Sam Vimes; I have a theory that he is being groomed for the patricianship....

As usual this is highly readable and very likeable. Having seen a few classic horror movies will aid picturing the surroundings, as will some knowledge of dwarf-culture from other fantasy sources (and some awareness of the bardic tradition in Welsh literature!).

One of the best Discworld novels so far, although not a good starting point.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

'Jurassic Park' and 'The Lost World' by Michael Crichton (1991 and 1995)

These two books I picked up for free at Steer's mad giveaway recently. I really enjoyed them! I quite liked the first 2 movies (the third was abysmal) but was surprised how much better the books were. I'm sure you know the story so I won't describe it. I'm sure the science throughout is a little dodgy (otherwise there would be cloned dinosaurs I suppose!) and the characters are cardboard thin at times. But, is genuinely exciting! I stayed up to read them...I couldn't put them down.

I particularly liked that the animals themselves were portrayed rather sympathetically. They were not anthropomorphised nor were they simple killing machines. Part of the story revolves around concepts of dinosaurs as social creatures and their role as parents. The velociraptors, the protagonists of the movies arguably, have a somewhat smaller role, whilst the t-rex takes centre stage. But it is the supporting cast of more varied animals which brings this lost world to life.

I found it especially satisfying that the whole "let's take a live dinosaur to mainland USA" plotline (which diminished the second movie) was absent from the book. Crichton has gone up in my estiamtion for this fact alone!

I would recommend these books simply because they are good fun, if a bit bloody and strewn with entrails at times!

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