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A Shameless Plug Ian Likes: Bibliorati.com

A little-known fact is that I once had a gig reviewing books for five years. It was for a now-defunct website known as The Specusphere. It was awesome fun: I scored some books by favourite writers, found some new authors to follow and got to see my words in print and, occasionally, re-used for publicity purposes.

I also think that reviewing books made me a better reader: not more discerning, unfortunately, but a little sharper at picking out things that I liked, or ideas that I’d seen before. It also gave me a new zest for reading and sharing things that I liked.

The Specusphere folded in 2014 but I’ve managed to relocate to a new site called Bibliorati. You can find it here. It’s the brainchild of publisher Tommy Hancock and it’s a site for people who like reading.

That’s it, really.

It has a small amount of content at the moment but it is growing daily and contains material from over a dozen writers, myself included. I author a weekly feature called Banks On Books, which functions much the same as this website but on a more regular basis. I talk about books I’ve read and what I like about them and what I think makes them a good read.

I hope you enjoy it.

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Review: Winter Warriors by David Gemmell

Winter Warriors (Drenai Tales, #8)Winter Warriors by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seriously, if you’re after an introduction to the way Mr Gemmell writes you really couldn’t go past this one: it’s pretty much a textbook example of everything that’s great about his writing with very few of the flaws you find in some of his other books. It has an exciting story, characters that make you feel complex emotions, some continuity porn (but not enough that you feel out of your depth) and he mixes his newer theme of friendship between comrades at arms despite background differences with some of his older ideas like the complexity of choices and how they can affect the larger world. There’s very little timey-wimey-ness in this book too, which is a relief after the last few stories.

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Review: 2061: Odyssey 3 by Arthur C. Clarke

2061: Odyssey Three (Space Odyssey, #3)2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book a lot but only as a continuation of a great story rather than for itself. It relies on sidetracks, infodumps and a lot of goodwill from the reader to succeed. There’s a lot to love in it, but there’s also a lot that feels like retreads of overly familiar themes that Sir Arthur had already written for books that he didn’t finish.

It lacks the grandeur that both its predecessors had. It feels a slightly more literary novel, with a lot of interesting characters but there aren’t many who contribute a lot to the plot: you could take out nearly half of the characters and still have roughly the same novel.

But it reads well and feels great so you barely notice the lack of soul.

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Review: Dark Moon by David Gemmell

Dark MoonDark Moon by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very tight and well-paced epic told over only one volume. It lacks bloat and tells its tale economically.

The characters are well-differentiated and have realistic motives and histories. Dace/ Tarantio start off as an intriguing pair but having their origin explained away as a result of childhood trauma feels a bit pat and (given the number of similar books written about the same time about multiple personalities and repressed memories) pandering to popular tastes. I did enjoy the possibility of future stories that was left open by the conclusion of this story though. Karis came across as a totally believable character: tough as nails but with a softer side that didn’t feel two-dimensional or patronising. Other characters were equally well-written, especially Duvodas and the dilemmas faced by him with his vow of pacifism and the circumstances that lead him to break that, and Duke Albreck who I felt was only a few shades away from being a villain in some other books – the idea of a character who imposes a wall between themselves and people who could make them vulnerable is pretty much the theme of this book and it spills out into other books after this. It’s just that in later books these characters are more likely to be split down the middle of heroes and villains whereas previously they were more likely to be the villain.

I had mixed feelings about the healing of Shira: in part because of the whole “handicapped person can only live as a whole person” idea isn’t really played out here: she’s accepted that her leg was healed badly after her accident and doesn’t let it affect her life except to make her falling in love with Duvodas more consequential to them both. I really didn’t feel that it added anything to the book except to highlight how fab the Oltor Prime was. And her fate felt a bit fridge-like, to be honest.

The worldbuilding is great, too: most of Mr Gemmell’s books have had a generic alt-medieval setting with some mental and occult powers added as a magical element. This is a rare outing where he gives us fantastical creatures with their own cultures and histories and while it feels a little tentative in places, it’s great fun to read about intelligent monsters with cultures of their own, as well as being a pleasure to not have to deal with elves and goblins again.

In summary, this is a rare singleton from Gemmell. There are clues to further stories and developments for these characters but we never got them. Part of me is disappointed but I’m always happy when a story finishes and I want to hear more about the characters: it means the author has done their job properly.

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Review: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

The Blue SwordThe Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mostly enjoyable but the pace stumbles a little bit in lots of places and the beginning feels a little stilted compared to the rest of the book. You can argue that it fits with Harry’s character at that point but I don’t think that carries any real weight: the writing and pacing feels a little unsure of itself until we get to the training montage.

It’s a very ’80s novel: Harry takes uppers during her training so she can spend more time learning things and suffers nothing worse than needing to sleep a lot when she comes down. She also has a fabulous horse that seems almost human in its behaviour, as well as making friends with a giant cat. But these are sins that this book shares with any number of similar stories from the same period, rather like we can’t read a YA book these days that doesn’t use high school as a metaphor for the society that the protagonist is trying to bring down. And of course, thanks to Avatar, we’re all now suspicious of “white saviours” who join a different culture, master their esoteric skills in no time flat and save the world. Which is a pity because Harry is quite a bit more than that in a lot of ways.

But she’s a great character and she has some excellent adventures in a really vivid world that oozes with artlessly placed clues about its history and people. It’s a real shame that this didn’t spawn more sequels than it did.

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Review: The Legend Of Deathwalker by David Gemmell

The Legend of Deathwalker (Drenai Tales, #7)The Legend of Deathwalker by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Through a series of misadventures, Druss and Sieben find themselves taking part in a siege while a Nadir tribesman is searching for something to help his people unite under one banner. This is similar in theme to Quest For Lost Heroes – a quest that starts off as one thing then turns into something else that appears to be trivial – but much more uplifting.

Something that I’ve noticed in these more recent books is how Mr Gemmell has changed the way he writes about friendship. In his early books he spoke a lot about the bonds that form between people – almost entirely men, admittedly – and how they form and make us take responsibility for each other in times of crisis. In the last few books (this one was published in 1996) I’ve noticed that he’s started to show friendship growing and developing after and making people feel obligated to help each other. It’s mostly in the friendship between Druss and Sieben, two very different men with some very different views on things, but who understand that they share some core values. This sharing of similarities between friends and opponents is what drives this book and it reinforces the ideas of Legend, which was the rare fantasy epic that had no villains, just protagonists defending their own existence.

While I don’t think it’s as significant a book as, say, Lion Of Macedon, the stakes that Druss eventually discovers that he’s fighting for render this book as being thought-provoking and highlighting the author’s own clearly mixed feelings about war and conflict. That said, it’s an exciting adventure story that invites you to think harder about its content.

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Review: The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke

Sentinel/the TrSentinel/the Tr by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pretty good collection of stories: only a couple of them have the “zinger” punchline that annoyed me in Of Time And Stars and it’s used effectively in one of them. There’s only one story that relies on some sort of esoteric science knowledge as well, which is great too. Because most of these are longer stories Sir Arthur takes his time and unfolds things carefully and to great effect: the rambling that plagues his later novels (idea!idea!idea!…somethingvaguelyplotty…idea!) and stories hasn’t taken root here and we get some nice character and setting laid out for us here.

“Rescue Mission,” “A Meeting With Medusa” and “The Wind From The Sun” are probably my favourites here as they set out the great Clarke-ian themes (How We Can Use Science For The Betterment Of Mankind And His Environment) simply and effectively. Something I noticed with this collection is how similar Clarke’s style is to that of Isaac Asimov, although he does turn a poetic phrase much better than the good doctor.

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A Book Ian Likes: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Adaptations of art into different mediums most often fall without trace into the collective memory, occasionally dragged out by a teacher trying to show their class that what they taught had some cultural currency once, when they clearly just aren’t engaging their students properly. More often than not, the adaptation is soon forgotten while the original work sails on regardless. Occasionally, though, the adaptation looms as large in a culture’s memory and threatens to surpass the original in terms of recognition. James Michener’s mosaic novel Tales Of The South Pacific and T. S. Eliot’s collection Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats are better known as musicals; Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy has had so many adapted forms (movie, television serial, album, stage play, computer game, novel, towel) that some people express surprise that it was a radio serial first; The Phantom Of The Opera by Gaston Leroux was a novel before it was a movie and musical sensation. Frankenstein; Sherlock Holmes; Scarlett O’Hara; James Bond; Bridget Jones; Sousa’s ‘Liberty Bell’; Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’… all of these have more recent cultural resonances that overshadow their original incarnations.

Such a cultural juggernaut is Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Miserables. It’s been completely overshadowed in the last thirty years by the still-astonishing musical. There’s a book nerd not terribly deep within me that rebels against this cultural substitution, but he frequently gets shouted down by the theatre nerd sitting next to him. However, what they both agree on is that given the length of the book, it is amazing at how much of what’s on the page – to borrow a phrase – makes it onto the stage.

The barebones version of the story is that Jean Valjean is transformed from a bitter former convict into a kind and selfless man by a single act of compassion. He then adopts the daughter of a woman who has died while in his care and devotes the rest of his life to raising her. She meets a boy who becomes involved in the Paris riots of 1832 and Valjean has to save him as well. Throughout the novel, however, Valjean is pursued by Inspector Javert, who searches for Valjean in sporadic bursts of activity when he finds news of his possible whereabouts.

There is, of course, a lot more to the book than this. As well as a great read, it’s a critique of society and how it treats the marginal members of it. Hugo doesn’t pull punches, nor does he sentimentalise his characters, but he does make you feel some sympathy for the downtrodden and the wretched and gives reasons for how they came to be where they were and why they can’t escape – the details of Fantine’s life and why she sinks as low as she does are heartbreaking. The lives of characters who constantly compromise how they live and what they do to survive without falling into despair are full of dignity and sadness: the details of Marius’ threadbare life are interesting to read because he is a fit young man who is poor through choice and is also one of the protagonists while the story of M. Mabeuf who becomes poorer and poorer are awful in the extremes of privation that he finds himself in and adapting to.

And, of course, in a world recovering from the recent Global financial Crisis, we are still hearing stories such as this, as well as still hearing from pundits who just can’t believe that people like this can’t bootstrap themselves into financial independence and regard poverty as a failure of character rather than a circumstance. So, like many true classics, it gives us an insight into how our world works and how people respond to it.

Of course, it’s a great read. Hugo had a huge love affair with Paris and France that lasted his entire life and it shows here: you could take out the chunks talking about French history and society and what’s wrong with it and be left with a story roughly half the length. But it wouldn’t be the same. It’s a novel that takes its heart from its subject matter and the passion that the author has for it. It shouldn’t work: it’s immense (1 463 pages in my copy), polemical, deeply political and deals sympathetically with characters on the margins of society. But it’s a magnificent book.

My first read of it was in late 1987 during the summer holidays after my first go at Year 12. I’d found it in a shop in Hobart for $9.95. I couldn’t resist it: it was cheap, fat and the basis for a hit stage show. I read it over a couple of weeks (admission: I skipped the Waterloo chapters that first time around) then bought the soundtrack to the musical on a double cassette that didn’t leave my side for years afterwards. I saw the stage show in Sydney in 1989 (Normie Rowe as Valjean, Debbie Byrne as Fantine) and loved it. It was one of the first classics I ever read off my own bat (ie, not for school) and it went a long way towards making me more willing to give them a go and seek them out for myself in the future.

It does have its flaws: like I said, it does get polemical and preachy at times but Hugo makes his screeds against an uncaring society genuinely powerful and he backs them up with examples in the storyline: his characters can be set upon and hurt but some are also mean and thoughtless, reinforcing the concerns of the novel about a heartless society hurting everyone within it. It also relies very heavily on coincidence: the main characters all appear to be linked in some way and their stories all combine in the climax at the barricades. I can deal with Javert cropping up a few times in Valjean’s life, and also with him being the officer whom Marius asks for help, but Thenardier saving Marius’ father’s life at Waterloo stretches the friendship a little, I fear. However, it does make the scenes in the flat where Marius observes Valjean being held captive by Thenardier and his gang a little more excruciating and exciting and it really isn’t any worse than some of the extenuating circumstances devised by Dickens and others to keep their plots moving.

But I really don’t care because this is a story that covers every base of the human experience that combines a love story (poorly handled in the musical, IMNSHO) with a political thriller, a caper with escapes and philosophical dilemmas based around unlikely, but possible, thought experiments. It’s funny, tragic, dark and uplifting. It also teaches you more about sewers than any sane person really needs to know. But in the best, most amazing way possible. And you can sing along to it.

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Review: The Hawk Eternal by David Gemmell

The Hawk Eternal: Second Book of The Hawk Eternal: Second Book of “the Hawk Queen” by David Gemmell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Entertaining sequel to Ironhand’s Daughter with more timey-wimey shenanigans. Sigarni features as a very minor character in this one as it is set several generations prior to that book, using characters and settings mentioned fleetingly there.

It tells a similar story, too: the Lowlanders are replaced by ersatz Vikings who are building an empire for themselves. They are portrayed in a way that doesn’t generate much sympathy for them and their backstory is dealt with far too perfunctorily to make them feel like real characters.

That’s really a problem across the whole book, to be honest: the main storyline and characters are portrayed in a way that makes you are about them and become invested in them, but the time travel and alt-universe subplots – which are really important to how the story is constructed – feel rushed and incomplete and I didn’t understand why such crucial elements were being dealt with so abruptly.

But the adventure story, the growth of people over the several years of this story, as well as the sense of community you get from the characters, are vintage Gemmell.

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A Book Ian Likes: 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke

For many years, Arthur C. Clarke held the belief that a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey was not only unnecessary but also impossible. So it was a surprise for many when 2010: Odyssey Two was published. Certainly it was an unneeded sequel, but it manages to extend and explain many of the events of the original film/ book in a way that made sense to people who had been baffled by them (although if you read the book things were perfectly clear). It was also an interesting sequel because it took its cues from the film rather than the book to avoid confusion and it also took into account several advances in culture and science that had occurred since 1968. This retroactive editing of events was something that Clarke was going to do a lot of in the further sequels – so much so that by the fourth entry in this series the first novel actually took place ten years later than 2001!

The main character in this sequel is Heywood Floyd, who is asked to take part in a mission to Jupiter to recover data from the Discovery which has been floating dormant in space since Dave Bowman disappeared through the Monolith a decade earlier. Also on the mission is HAL 9000’s programmer who is tasked with bringing HAL back online. Of course, things don’t go as simply as they would hope…

My recent reread of this novel reminded me again of why Clarke was regarded as a giant in the field of speculative literature. The ideas illuminating it are breathtaking. His grasp on “the possible” and the implications of it are clever, insightful and wry. He also has a firm grasp of character and what drives people to succeed.

2010 is a great novel about space exploration. The crew of the Leonov (the ship sent to Jupiter) are a crew of individuals, all at the peak of their professions, but who each live complex inner lives and who all have their own personalities (I’d take them over the crew of any Enterprise any day). But for a lot of the story they only provide the backdrop for events happening elsewhere. However, when they are front and centre the book is a great read. In fact, I will make the controversial call that this is a better read than its parent volume. Possibly not a better novel, but a better all-round book.

Which leads to a confession: I love the first half of this book with the power of a thousand suns. I really like the second half a lot, too, but the first half with its great characters, premise, build-up and journey across the solar system is everything I love about Science Fiction. One of my favourite moments in this novel – hell, one of my favourite moments in all of literature! – is Chapter 11, wherein we hear the sole survivor of the doomed mission to Europa transmitting news of their astonishing find to the universe knowing that he will be dead before anyone even hears it. The second half begins with a look at what Dave Bowman gets up to when he returns through the Monolith. However, while it’s interesting and well-written – and very cleverly incorporates the end of the first book into its storyline – the jolt from “exciting space story” to “leisurely travelogue across 21st Century earth from Dave Bowman’s perspective” is a blow that the story takes too long to recover from. It’s not badly done, but it lacks the “oomph” of the first sections.

Also slightly jarring are the divergences from the first book. These moments do not detract from the text but they do make you scratch your head a little. As stated above they exist only because of the relentless march of progress in the real world between the two books which render some details inaccurate or just wrong, but they really don’t distract you too much unless you are the sort of person that gets caught up in continuity porn.

However, I love this book: when I first read it back in 1984, it pressed all my buttons and was one of the first books that I’d read that was actually a current novel rather than being something that had been published in the (to me, distant) past. I was also starting to read reviews and was letting my reading of them guide my choices rather than stuff I found in bookshops that had a cool blurb on the back cover. Along with Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge this marked a point in my life when I was starting to engage with my book choices as a critical reader rather than a consumer.

It’s also a stonking good read: it interacts with its world far more than its predecessor did and engages with popular culture of the time far more also: there are several references to Star Wars as well as Star Trek, Alien and The Lord Of The Rings (book, not film) as well as the requisite classical references that every writer of the time needed to include to justify their membership in refined culture (I appear to sneer but I genuinely miss novels that reference “high” art as a way of throwing their own ideas into some sort of relief).

There are also reference to its previous incarnations: there are several passages lifted wholesale from 2001 that are used as exposition or to throw the reader back into the themes of that book/ film/ cultural artefact. It’s a neat trick, and a useful form of shorthand that reminds you of what Clarke is trying to achieve. It’s used sparingly here and doesn’t outstay its welcome like it does in future volumes.

In conclusion, this is not my favourite novel by Sir Arthur (that honour belongs to The Songs Of Distant Earth), but it’s the one that shows his gifts as a storyteller and explainer of ideas most brilliantly. And, like I said, it’s a cracking read.

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