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Review: The English Way Of Death by Gareth Roberts

The English Way of DeathThe English Way of Death by Gareth Roberts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pretty ordinary: a whole lot of promising ideas weave themselves into a coherent and interesting story but just fail to grab my interest. I liked the structure of the story, the fact that it contains my favourite Tardis Team and how it mirrored the Classic series, as well as the conceit that everything that happened could just possibly be conceived upon the budget of Series 17, except possibly for K9 moving on the beach. Also, I may have imagined it, but I think Mr Roberts was sneaking song lyrics into the story whenever he could get away with it: I spotted “As Time Goes By” and “Automatic” (Pointer Sisters) being quoted at points in the story, and there were a few other lines that I suspected of being borrowed as well.

Good fun, but nowhere near the heights that I had been led to believe, which makes me feel better for not having sampled this range of stories more back in the day.

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Category:  Books ,review ,Science Fiction ,Writing     

Review: In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human ImaginationIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a collection of Ms Atwood’s non-fiction pieces, reviews and some of her short fiction. She has an awful lot of interesting stuff to say about SF, a label she tried hard to eschew then embraced quite recently as a descriptor for some of her work, though under some qualifications.

I enjoyed her non-fiction pieces: she has some really exciting things to say about writers like Wells and Haggard and her survey of Ursula LeGuin’s fiction tested some ideas that about her work that was quite insightful about the differences between genre writing and “proper” literature. I would love to read her thoughts on some other literature, speculative or otherwise.

And then I got to her short fiction. Look, as a practitioner of flash fiction (stories of less than 1 000 words) myself, I think Ms Atwood’s work leaves something to be desired. As I felt in Oryx And Crake, the SF/ futurism was a little old hat and got in the way of the story (which, in O&C, was otherwise great. The ideas are sound but need more length in order to stretch their wings. They also seemed to be striving to go out of their way to make their point as archly as possible in at least three of the five examples she gave us.

It’s annoying because I’ve really liked all of her books that I’ve read and she shows in her non-fiction that she really understands the genre and what it can do. All I can say is read it for the articles.

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Review: The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quite a slog, but easy to put down and pick back up again. First up, I have to say that William of Baskerville is a crap detective: he does great deductions but is no good at solving an overall mystery – I did grin at the scenes where the Abbot was basically saying, “Well, my monks keep on dying, William, what are you doing about it?” Of course, naming him as a nod to The Great Detective gives him heights he can’t possibly aspire to, especially as “Consulting Detective” is not really a career option in the early 14th Century.

Adso – the narrator – is more help than Watson, though, but not as interesting a storyteller. For one thing, he constantly refers to the fact that this all happened in his youth and he is now a very old man: the drops in perspective come across to this reader as irritating rather than illuminating.

The story is great, although it is more literary than a regular mystery: the constant sidesteps into religious history are entertaining but deal with minutiae that can be baffling to a modern reader if they don’t already have an interest in the period or the topic (at this point in his career Mr Eco had not yet mastered the art of infodumping). Which is a shame because pre-plague Europe was a mess of schisms and intrigues that make for excellent reading.

Anyway, when the story is on point it is great fun and makes you feel erudite and knowledgeable – and that library! Who wouldn’t want a library like that (minus the deathtraps and homicidal maniac, obviously)?. When it isn’t (such as the aforementioned infodumps) it is a bit of a chore. But William and Adso are such a great team that you can’t help wishing that their story wasn’t so comprehensively finished at the close. But a series of stories such as this would probably kill more monks than the coming plague.

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Review: Roger Zelazny’s Visual Guide To Castle Amber by Roger Zelazny and Neil Randall

Visual Guide to Castle AmberVisual Guide to Castle Amber by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good, dumb fun: adds little to the mythos (besides FLOORPLANS! and MAPS!) but does flesh out some details and has the bonus of being narrated for a large chunk by Flora in her Merlin Chronicles persona: to be honest, I prefer her as the gossipy aunt she is to Merlin, rather than the slightly treacherous bimbo that Corwin sees her as. The illustrations belong to the Van Art School of the ’70s and ’80s that has thankfully disappeared from everywhere but its natural home.

One for fans, really. So yeah, I liked it.

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Review: The King Beyond The Gate by David Gemmell

The King Beyond the Gate (Drenai Tales, #2)The King Beyond the Gate by David Gemmell

This is a fantastic sequel, largely because it doesn’t dwell for too long on what happened to the characters from the previous novel. It begins a century after said previous novel and straight away introduces you to new characters, new situations and a brand new adventure.

The Drenai people – threatened by the Nadir hordes in Legend– are involved in internal conflict here, leaving themselves wide open to attack and insurrection. It’s left to Tenaka Khan, half-Nadir, half-Drenai, to solve problems. He’s aided by friends who are forced to rely on him because he has the only plan that could possibly save them.

What is excellent about this book is the way Gemmell takes up the story straight away, without wasting too much time. He has an economical style that keeps the story moving and doesn’t waste time on needless scenes. And he takes the time to explore sides and nuance in his situations: he isn’t just about creating epic battle scenes and set-pieces. In fact, the whole idea of The Thirty, the warrior monks used to such great effect in many of Gemmell’s novels, pretty much sum up his feelings about war and conflict: they are trained to love life and worship the tranquility that comes from inner peace but choose to become skilled warriors and seek out a just conflict in which to lend their services and fight until they die. They are constantly aware of the hypocrisy of their situation but do it anyway.

What is less great is the way in which there are pages of conversation about what is the right thing to do when you believe that all life is sacred and are choosing to take part in a bloody conflict in which hundreds of people are going to die senselessly. It’s a theme that Gemmell explored in all of his novels and never seemed to come to a definite conclusion about. Which is at least refreshing, when swathes of authors never seem to question it at all.

The other weakness is one that seems to follow Gemmell through all his books as well: he spends a lot of time training up a plucky force to deal with an ominous threat that wants to destroy them. Unlike Legend there are villains here and many fewer shades of grey in the storyline. However, it’s a structure that could become tiring before too much longer and a formula that Gemmell himself at least tried to vary as he went along in his career.

But, while he does deal with ideas that are different in each book, he won’t let go of the idea of a “honourable” conflict, or how it can pollute your soul or redeem it. He also spends a lot of time dealing with how being skilled at dealing with death on a constant basis can desensitise you to living with other human beings in a peaceful, everyday existence, something at odds with his love of portraying the benefits of bonding with your fellows in the cause. This is touched on briefly here and becomes something that he deals with in greater depth in later books.

For the moment we have a terrific adventure filled with capable, rugged heroes who aren’t afraid to question their own motives or honour. It adds depth to what could have been a repetitive, typical novel of the time.

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Category:  Books ,Fantasy     

Review: The Stainless Steel Rat Goes To Hell by Harry Harrison

The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell (Stainless Steel Rat, #9)The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell by Harry Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Rat finds himself pursuing a conman who’s been swindling people with visions of a false Heaven. Along the way he discovers alternate universes, gets tortured, kidnapped, and generally has a great old time being awesome. It’s a classic whirlwind adventure but, as with many of the other later novels in the sequence, there doesn’t seem to be a real aim to the humour or story and it takes a fairly scattergun approach to the themes. It’s still a good fun read, though, which is all I’ve ever asked of the Rat and his family.

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Review: The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all Wyndham novels, it’s only the occasional contemporary reference that lets you know you’re in the past. It feels astonishingly modern, even (depressingly) down to the debates about the role of women in a future that will take a few steps backwards.

It creaks a little bit – the sudden jump to the “5 years later” that we get in the last couple of chapters has always felt a bit strange, but he does similar things in other novels, so it may be that he’s doing something deliberate there and wanting to make a point – but the story moves along quickly, telling the events in an easily read manner that still invite a deeper analysis. Although, the main action of the novel itself is spaced over just a couple of weeks, so the jump may seem more jarring because of that.

Brian Aldiss described it as “… totally devoid of ideas, but read smoothly, and thus reached a maximum audience, who enjoyed cosy disasters.” Which is harsh, but to a stylist like Aldiss, entirely fair. However, the label of “cosy disaster” or “cosy catastrophe” really downplays the impact of the story – Bill and Josella do agonise over the lives they might save or could have saved, and the whole subplot involving Coker and his scheme for looking after the blind people of London speaks volumes about what was happening off-page. But Bill is narrating this story and he couldn’t be everywhere.

Bill is a competent hero, a type very popular until the ’60s when we started to become a more specialised and splintered culture. He faces the catastrophe as a series of problems to be solved. We get clues to the turmoil that he is undergoing and the desperation he feels, but – as the last few paragraphs show – he is reporting on the events from several years removed, so it may be that his account of things is coloured by that distance. Compare it to The Kraken Wakes, where the protagonist admits to having a breakdown at one point, and we get news reports as they happen.

However, for all that distance and cosiness, this is still the template for most disaster novels since the 1950s, and we are still feeling that influence nearly 70 years later.

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Category:  Books ,Science Fiction     

Review: The Dragonlover’s Guide To Pern by Jody Lyn Nye (with Anne McCaffrey)

The Dragonlover's Guide to PernThe Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern by Jody Lynn Nye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the Pern series when I was a kid (still do, in fact) and it was one one of my go-to feel-good series for many years. This slim volume bought back many happy memories of the books (only reread a couple of years ago) as well as filling in some gaps I never knew existed.

Before I go much further, I should point out that I have a ridiculous love for source books such as this: if done well, they illuminate and enhance the source material, rather than just rehash tired bios and stories. I have been known to keep source books for series that I no longer have much interest in simply because they are beautiful artifacts that make me feel fondly towards something that may have been improved by the writer devoting more time to their writing rather than their worldbuilding.

In hindsight, I’ve often thought of the Weyr/Hold society as a post-scarcity quasi-mediaeval utopia (because while I dislike labels in general, I love snappy, sound-bitey pop-psych labels for things I have a ridiculously heavy interest in). This confirms it as we learn more about the screening process for the original colonists, which shows that characters such as Fax and Meron were aberrations and also why most of the “villains” of the series are more antagonists than actual baddies (I’ve loved this sort of retconning ever since I found out about the “Heisenberg compensators” built in to the transporters in Star Trek: The Next Generation). It also discusses the “adrenaline junkie” problem that the Oldtimers had which made them so agreeable to coming forward in time and being party to one of the more bizarre time loops in SF: Lessa goes back in time to bring the needed dragonriders forward because there are too few dragonriders in her time… because she went back and got them, thus creating the shortage…

The tone of the book is friendly (99% of people reading it are going to be fans already, right?) but not overly fannish (YMMV, of course) and it generates discussion and questions and a closer examination of the original texts (Sorry about all these brackets). It also allows you to look at characters in a new light which makes it a little more substantial than some other source books I’ve read in the past. It suffers from trying to make the information about crafthalls and holds more interesting than many readers might think (this one, anyway) but it does give you a glimpse into the wider society of Pern which was necessary for a book of this scope.

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Review: Legend by David A. Gemmell

Legend (Drenai Tales, #1)Legend by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can only be objective up to a certain point about this book. I’ve written about it elsewhere detailing what it means to me (http://stuffianlikes.aussieblogs.com….) but, essentially, once I get past the cover I’m just a raging fanboy having a nerdgasm.

(Speaking of the cover, I try to match up book covers to the editions that I own but sometimes (like now) Goodreads doesn’t come to the party. My copy of Legend is a first edition graced by artwork that the late Mr Gemmell reportedly despised, so I went with the illustration that he considered the “true” first cover.)

Anyway, to the book.

I have a friend who doesn’t mind Gemmell but accuses him of writing the same story each time. While this is true to a certain extent, there are at least variations on themes that he tries to explore in each novel, as well as character arcs and settings and ideas that are unique to each book. But it can be said that most Gemmell plots deal with a tired, jaded protagonist (usually male) who discovers that his fire for justice hasn’t quite gone out, nor has his need for redemption.

This book is where it all began.

And I love it. From the stone-cold classic prologue (something every fantasy novel needs), through to the meeting of the protagonists, past the assembly of the gifted team, through the forty-something page training montage and into the 150 or so pages of fortress-under-siege goodness that is the climax. It even has an epic funeral

It’s a really simple setting and story but it completely works because of the investment you have in the characters. There’s a fairly hefty amount of cheese and ham in the delivery but it’s all sincerely and honestly done. Some elements of the ending feel a little weak (personally, I love the resolution of the siege) and hackneyed but there is so much else going for it that you can easily forgive it.

Like I said, I find it hard to be objective about this book because I have so much history tied up in it, but it is, at worst, a terrific way to spend a few hours.

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Category:  Books ,Fantasy     

Review: Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude The ObscureJude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is jarring to read a Thomas Hardy novel that mentions electricity and photographs and has characters catching trains. As his stories were usually a little more rural in setting and set a few decades in the past of whenever they were written, it is interesting to read Mr Hardy using a location more in line with his thinking.

Because Hardy is a writer who was definitely modern in his outlook: almost all of his novels involve characters rebelling against society or committing transgressions against it and paying for it. In this novel it is Jude who wants to better himself and self-educates himself into a state of misery because he is unable to take advantage of his drive and attain a place at the university he has used as a grail his entire life because of his social class.

He also has to contend with his family history and background: his family have a history of turmoil and bad luck. You can only wonder if it is due to them being too smart for this world: Jude certainly sees the lunacy of many of our “rules” and tries desperately hard to nail his colours to whatever mast he sees as being the right one. And he tries hard to steer a morally sound path – as he sees it – through his life but is continually held back because his moral honesty isn’t as respected or as understood as the compromises that other people make.

What is astonishing about this book – and frustrating for someone brought up on a diet of modern stories and soap operas – is the notion that people make their beds in their relationships and have to lie down in them regardless of how their feelings or circumstances may change. Hardy recognises that what seems like a good idea can sour at a later date and that people want to move on and try again. And despite the efforts of Jude, Sue, Arabella and Phillotson to progress with their lives and mind their own business, society and their own suppressed guilt conspire to make things worse.

Jude’s been a personal favourite of mine for years now (although I find myself getting a little more frustrated with him the older I get) because he’s a man who wants what society says is a good thing… but not for people like him. And his story, while soaked in despair and darkness at times, is still a great read.

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