Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Digital Hotrods - Ben Hardwidge

I'm probably not the best person to be reviewing this book, as a) I know nothing about computer hardware and b) I live with the author... but, I have a book review site and Ben has a book; it seemed silly not to combine the two...

Digital Hotrods is a well-produced and glossy coffee-table book about building and customising PCs. If you'd thought that PC modding was just for sad dads in their sheds and teenagers with no girlfriends... well, you'd be partly right, but it's also a fast-growing hobby, and those geeky boys of yesteryear are now big earners with lots of money to spend on it. This is the PC equivalent of an Ideal Home exhibition - more of an aspirational lifestyle guide than a how-to manual.

There is some How-To content here, of course; sandwiched in between the section on the scene's history and the amazing showcase PCs at the back, there is a broad overview of all the parts that make up a PC, and how to make them go fast and look good. Of the three sections, this is the one least accessible to the layman, but the writing is not overly technical and the whole thing is surprisingly readable; even from a position of complete ignorance, you can get through most of the book without feeling too stupid, and even learn a couple of things too.

The main point of this book, however, is the pictures, and lovely and shiny they are too. This is one book about computers that you can leave lying around in the lounge without scaring off your non-geek friends - it looks rather like a book of modern art, and in fact Amazon even have it listed in the Art & Design section. If you're not already into PC modding, it's probably not a book you'd buy for yourself, but if you have a mate whose computer-talk usually leaves you baffled, then this would make a great present.

For a proper review from someone who actually knows about this stuff, try - they seem to know what they're talking about.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Eye of Argon - Jim Theis

Not an actual book, or a review, but this is so very funny that it deserves to be posted: The worst fantasy short story ever written...
Grignr's muddled brain reeled from the shock of the blow he
had recieved to the base of his skull. The events leading to his
predicament were slow to filter back to him. He dickered with
the notion that he was dead and had descended or sunk, however it
may be, to the shadowed land beyond the the aperature of the
grave, but rejected this hypothesis when his memory sifted back
within his grips. This was not the land of the dead, it was
something infinitely more precarious than anything the grave
could offer. Death promised an infinity of peace, not the finite
misery of an inactive life of confined torture, forever concealed
from the life bearing shafts of the beloved rising sun. The orb
that had been before taken for granted, yet now cherished above
all else. To be forever refused further glimpses of the snow
capped summits of the land of his birth, never again to witness
the thrill of plundering unexplored lands beyond the crest of a
bleeding horizon, and perhaps worst of all the denial to ever
again encompass the lustful excitement of caressing the naked
curves of the body of a trim yound wench.


Prelude to Dune: House Atreides/House Harkonnen - Brian Herbert & Kevin Anderson

This won't be a proper review as it's been a while since I read either of these books, but as I have no intention of reading them again this is the best you're going to get. They were pretty awful.

In fact, the first one can't have been too bad because I went out and bought the sequel. The plot was fairly weak - some Imperial court intrigues and a nefarious scheme to do away with young Leto - but it was very nice to be able to revisit Arrakis and to see the back-stories of Gurney, Duncan, the Baron and all the rest. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the second book, the pleasant feeling of nostalgia had worn off and I was forced to sit up and take notice of the plot (grimace) and the style (yikes!).

The original Dune series worked because (dodgy science notwithstanding) it was a well-conceived epic on a huge scale, with broad themes of power, religion, eugenics, addiction... realistically, the prequels were never going to fit into that story because it hadn't started yet; all we'd have would be the Bene Gesserit mucking about with bloodlines, the Baron generally being evil and all the other characters growing up in their various ways. This presumably not being enough material for an entire book, Herbert and Anderson have been forced to cobble together some dodgy plots about a Tleilaxu invasion of Ix, Harkonnen family politics and some other nonsense that I've forgotten, probably hoping that the Dune franchise would be powerful enough to sell these books despite the pitifully weak content.

OK, yes, these are fiction books, and therefore made up. And, indeed, they are science fiction books, which means the worlds and the settings are made up too. But really, do they have to look so made up? I sat through the whole of House Harkonnen with a puzzled expression on my face and phrases like "What? Why would he do that? That's not right! You're making this up!" going through my head. None of the events seem likely; none of the characters act in believable ways. Clumsy, clumsy and bad. If you want to read about sandworms and Reverend Mothers, re-read the original series; boycott this dross like the swill that it is.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Malazan Book of the Fallen - Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters

It's difficult to overstate how good this series is. It's gritty, it's funny, it's dark and it's moving; Erikson has created a huge and complex world with a pantheon, numerous Elder civilisations (extinct, still warring or both) and intricate human politics, all intertwined and supported by a unique concept of magic, the Warrens. There are so many plots on so many levels that it makes the best circus plate-spinner look like a bumbling amateur.

There is a long, cold war between Light, Dark and Shadow (and no, Light are not the good guys). The new god of Shadow is trying to meddle in human politics, but his throne is far from stable - the warren of Shadow has shattered and many factions are fighting over the pieces. Monsters from extinct elder races are reappearing and causing havoc; gods are created and destroyed; an ancient wanderer with terrible powers is roaming the land... and the Malazans are trying to build an empire.

Amid all this inter-species war and celestial power-play, it's hard to pinpoint which plot is central, but throughout the series it always seems to come back to the human involvement. The Malazan Empire is fairly new but rapidly expanding, as Empress Laseen's troops conquer further and further afield, bringing cynical but mostly benevolent civilisation to the unwashed masses. There is a lot of political ambiguity in the conquests - the Malazan invaders may be promoting trade and stamping out the local cruelties, but the morals and motives of their commanders are extremely suspect.

The Malazan storyline mostly follows the Bridgeburners, a small company of soldiers and mages in the Malaz army. The characters are simply but effectively sketched - the sheer number of plots and sub-plots prevents much in-depth character-building, but Erikson still manages to make them believable and likeable. They've all got great names, too - Whiskeyjack, Fiddler, Mallet, Quick Ben - which helps to contrast the no-nonsense world of the front line with the more esoteric and magical events going on elsewhere.

The series isn't finished yet - I think there are 3 or 4 more books to go - and there's been no sign of a drop in quality so far. If you haven't tried Erikson yet, you've got a guarantee of several weeks' good reading right now and the promise of plenty more in the future, and what more could anyone want?

Go on, go out and buy these books now. And read them. It's OK, I'll wait.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Claw of the Conciliator - Gene Wolfe

Soooo.... the final verdict? Well, there's more action in this one, and there are attempts at fleshing-out some of the key plot points that were skated over in the first book, but I still didn't like it that much. It did, however, help me to figure out exactly what was missing from the series: a structure.

For a linear story to work, you need to have at least a basic idea of where it's going, what the characters are aiming for and essentially what the point of it all is. Wolfe does drop hints of this, but they are entirely swamped by all the other detail; the plot just seems to meander through a string of unconnected events, all of which seem as inconsequential as each other. Yes, the writing is beautiful, but it maintains exactly the same pitch throughout the book - there is nothing to contrast with the long, wordy descriptions and in the end it all comes to seem like background noise. None of the events stand out, none of the characters stand out; there are just not enough pegs to hang the story on, which is a damn shame as I really wanted to enjoy these books. Think Mozart making lift music, or Rembrandt designing wallpaper - the details are pretty, but the overall effect is just bland.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel

Ghosts have always been the lamest members of the monster family, and it's very hard to find a good story about them - few have motivations that go much beyond Vengeance from Beyond The Grave!, and they very rarely do anything interesting, especially the ones that just repeat their own death scene over and over again. HiIary Mantell has managed to do something very special with this book by taking the conventional ghost-behaviour and twisting it into something new and quite horrible.

The premise sounds rather like a sitcom: Alison is a medium who works the London commuter-belt circuit doing psychic fairs and private readings, accompanied by her sharp but efficient (non-psychic) assistant Colette and unpleasant spirit guide Morris. However, this is comedy of the very blackest variety. Against the bleak backdrop of travelodges, motorway service stations and draughty civic halls, Alison's life revolves around the petty rivalry of her fellow mediums, the bovine gullibility of her audience and Colette's nasty sniping; there's not a nice character among them. And the ghosts are even worse.

It's always left slightly ambiguous as to whether the ghosts are actually real or just hallucinations brought on by the trauma in Alison's earlier childhood - brought up by her prostitute mother among the squaddies and seedy criminal underclass of an overspill council estate. It is from this background that Alison's ghosts come; not spooky or vengeful, but sleazy, unpleasant characters who you'd certainly avoid if they were alive, and now they can walk through your wall whenever they want... Not all the spirits are malignant, but they are all as petty and dull as they were when alive - no messages or threats from beyond the grave, just worries about their dry cleaning or compliments on their relatives' new furniture.

The front-end story is Alison's relationship with Colette, who is reluctantly escaping a failed marriage, and her struggles to cope with the ghosts who are becoming increasingly intrusive. The main point of the book, however, is the gradual uncovering of Alison's past; even though the front story slows down towards the end, there is still plenty to keep you involved. Mantell paints a beautifully bleak England composed of concrete blocks, wastelands and motorways, which contrasts nicely with the dry humour used to describe (for example) the slightly bogus psychic readings and Colette's pathetic ex-husband. It is a very dark novel, but you should still come out of it smiling.


Monday, June 05, 2006

The Shadow of the Torturer - Gene Wolfe

An Earth of the far future; a post-technological society living on the ruins of the past; ancient guilds with arcane rituals and origins lost in antiquity; cold and casual depictions of torture... Gene Wolfe describes all of these things in magnificent and luscious detail. Unfortunately, this takes up so much space that there isn't room for a plot.

Severian is a torturer's apprentice, who goes on to become a journeyman, is kicked out of the guild, and fights a duel... and, er, that's about it. Admittedly, this is only the first book in the series and there are hints of a bigger story in the background (the rebel Vodalus, the Claw of the Conciliator, some mention of time travel) but these are too short and inconsequential to count as proper foreshadowing. Vodalus in particular - the young Severian meets him in the first few pages and swears loyalty for no apparent reason, then repeatedly harps on about it for the rest of the book despite its utter irrelevance to the story.

The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Old Man Recording His Past. This is quite a commonly-used technique, as it allows a glimpse of what happened to the character in the end (eg. "As I sit here writing in my throne room..." or "The guards have provided me with pen and paper..."); it's also an easy way to do the foreshadowing ("If only I'd known what awaited me there...") and to reassure the reader that the character's not going to die. Unfortunately, it can also look quite cheesy and forced, and it rather precludes character development. Only one character can be explored, and this is done from the perspective of the same character at a fixed point in the future. This is fine when there is enough action to hold your interest, but action is something that this book badly lacks.

I'll be reading the next one in this series, but only because both books are bound up in the same volume. I'll let you know if it gets any better...


The Curse of the Pharoahs - Elizabeth Peters

Yeah, yeah, I know. I've just been on holiday to Egypt and a mate lent me this when I got back. Surprisingly, it's not as bad as you'd expect, mainly because the author's tongue is lodged so firmly in her cheek.

Set in the late 19th/early 20th century, this is a tale of Murder, narrated by the Feisty Heroine who is on a dig in Egypt with her Rugged Archaeologist Husband. Strange Things are Afoot, and the Credulous Natives believe there is (gasp!) a Curse! But we know better. Is the murderer the Annoying Irish Journalist? The Pale Young Photographer? The Nubile Widow? The Mad Old Lady?

As you may gather, the brush-strokes here are broad indeed. It has a similar feel to the film of The Mummy - cheery humour and unabashed cliché all running around and having a great time. It's all a bit silly but the author seems to be enjoying herself immensely, and this comes across in the writing.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as recommending this to other people, but it was a good fun book to read.


Friday, June 02, 2006

The Deverry Sequence - Katherine Kerr

A Time of Exile
A Time of Omens
A Time of War
A Time of Justice
The Red Wyvern
The Black Raven
The Fire Dragon
The Gold Falcon

Before you begin, it's as well to be warned - this is the first volume in a seriously epic series; currently the Deverry chronicles run to 12 books and there's another two on the horizon, so you may prefer to check your calendar (and your bank balance) before getting too involved. It takes a while to get going, but if you've the time and the patience then you'll be well rewarded.

The geography of Deverry and its environs is pretty standard - feudal baronies for the most part, with grasslands populated by nomadic elves in the west, dwarves up in the mountains and sophisticated slave- and spice-traders across the sea to the south. What distinguishes this series from similar books is Kerr's concept of destiny and reincarnation - characters who fail to fulfill their Wyrd in one life are doomed to try again in the next one, though with no knowledge of their past lives or failures. The first few books follow Nevyn, an ancient loremaster who foolishly vowed to stay alive until he'd fixed the destinies of the people whose lives he'd ruined; unfortunately this means tracking them down every time they reincarnate, and so far he's been trying for hundreds of years with only limited success. This allows the entertaining and successful device of showing past-life flashbacks of all the present-day characters in their previous incarnations; this device is also a neat way of describing Deverry's long history.

The device does have its drawbacks, chief among which is the enormous potential for confusion between characters (who also tend to have fairly similar names) - not only do you have to remember the difference between Maddyc, Maryc and Maryn, you also have to keep in mind whose prior incarnations they are and who else's destiny is tied up with theirs... the books often have a handy chart at the back to help you keep track of who's who, but it doesn't always help when trying to remember details from a flashback chapter three books ago.

In fact, the flashback chapters were actually all that kept me reading for the first few books, as they are rather more interesting than the present-day story which takes some time to get off the ground. The present-day characters, too, are really quite annoying - both of these flaws are ironed out through later books, however, as the story picks up and the characters mature.

Kerr's language also takes a bit of getting used to. Her research into ancient Celtic society has obviously been very thorough and she really knows her stuff, but this has led to her using the correct Celtic/Welsh spellings and pronunciations (including - yikes! a pronunciation guide) and plenty of the vocabulary. This goes beyond the normal bounds of authenticity and into affectation - it's not a Berlitz guide, phonetic spelling would have done the job just as well. Once you stop being annoyed at names like Yngwimyr and words like gwerbrethyr, however, it becomes much easier to read. She also makes the mistake many Americans do - attempting a mediaeval dialect without realising that some of it has become British schoolboy slang. Phrases like "I hate his guts" sound quite odd coming from adult warriors.

All of these are fairly minor gripes, however. The style may not be fantastic, but the world is believable enough and the interweaving stories are certainly complex enough to keep you interested for twelve long books and more.


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

The title sold this to me - the sheer cheekiness of writing a popular novel with words like "tractors" and "Ukrainian" in the title deserves to be rewarded. However, when it turned up I was quite disturbed to see a glowing recommendation on the front from the Daily Mail... and who else liked it? The Telegraph... the Times... the Spectator... oh dear...

A few pages in, it became clear why they liked it so much - the bad guy is an Illegal Immigrant, and the story is about the struggle by two estranged sisters to get her sent back home again. The result of this was an uncomfortable mixture of guilt and dread on my part while reading it - should I really be enjoying this? Will it turn out to be a load of right-wing propaganda? Should I even be reading it at all?

As it turns out, the book was really rather good, and in the end did not appear to have a particular political axe to grind - the heart of the story was in the characters, not the plot. The sisters are from a Ukrainian family that emigrated to England shortly after the second world war; the recent death of their mother resulted in the family falling apart, and this is where the real story lies - we delve into the family's horrific wartime past and their struggles to survive in post-war Europe, as the sisters try to reconcile their differences in the face of a common enemy.

The book stops short of being too censorious; it also stops short of heartwarming cheesiness. Overall, it strikes a good balance between the two, in the same way that the humourous tone balances out the bleak past. Appropriately, too - no place for melodrama in a book about tractors.


Ilium - Dan Simmons

It's about the Trojan War. On Mars. In the future. Not a metaphorical, allegorical or alternative-historical retelling of the Trojan War, it's the ACTUAL Trojan War. On Mars. In the future. Gods and Greeks and all.

Now, imagine the hoops any author would have to jump through to make a convincing story out of this, then throw in some added nonsense about The Tempest and a badly-thought-out nanotech-riddled future Earth, and you will go some way to understanding how this book fails so very badly...

The annoying thing is, I used to love Dan Simmons. The Hyperion cantos were great and intelligently written epic SF/horror/fantasy stories, and I even sacrificed an entire weekend of the precious snowboarding season so I could stay home and read them, but having read this load of toss I am unlikely ever to read his books again. The main plot is contrived and ludicrous, and the sub-plots seem to be clumsily shoehorned in just so the author can show off his vast literary knowledge (is there really any need to have a couple of robots discussing Proust and Shakespeare?).

You know how Raiders of the Lost Ark was a great film, then they took the same formula with added jingly bits and made the travesty that was Temple of Doom? Mr Simmons is clearly trying to repeat the Hyperion thing, but has ended up with a book that is actually even worse than Temple of Doom. In fact, it's even worse than the film Troy. Avoid like plague.


A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil - Christopher Brookmyre

No explosions in this one, but all the other Brookmyre hallmarks are there - an intricate plot, complex and believable characters and a hefty dose of dry humour. It's easy to make comparisons with his earlier school-reunion book One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night, but if anything this is slightly grimmer and more adult. This is probably due to the aforementioned lack of explosions, but also because he takes the brave step of killing off a character that you've come to care about (not a spoiler, don't worry; the body is discovered in the very first sentence).

The book opens with short scenes alternating between two panicked guys trying to hide some bodies, and the police discovering the remains shortly afterwards. An unfortunately-placed page break had me briefly confused, as it made it look like the police were doing the inept body-disposal themselves, but that was just bad layout - one thing you can be sure of with Brookmyre is that his characters are never going to act in inappropriate ways for the sake of a plot device. The first two criminals - old classmates of both the detective and the victim - are quickly apprehended, but of course it's not as simple as that (or it'd be a very short book). The subsequent police-procedural murder investigation then takes something of a back seat, as we go back to follow the characters' journey through the horrors of primary school, to see what clues can be found there.

This is a welcome return to classic, old-style murder mystery, where villains can be tracked down by unravelling the background and the motives - Patricia Cornwell and her forensic-detecting ilk are all very well, but as bad guys go, motiveless psychopaths are a bit of a cop-out. Here, Brookmyre is in his element, building a convincing past for all the main players, interspersed with the ongoing investigation and how they all interact as adults; as ever, his characters are made of real blood and bone, and you end up sympathising with even the worst of them.

I won't be giving anything away by saying the ending is unexpected - it is a mystery, after all. However, there's no gimmicky twist or Agatha Christie triteness, just an ending that ties it all up and seems entirely natural. Another result from a consistently good writer.


Vellum - Hal Duncan

I'm a very harsh critic when it comes to fantasy. There's just so much formulaic dross out there, which makes the trying-out of new authors a dangerous business; in fact, the first few pages of this had me quite worried that I'd landed another dud. It starts off with a student breaking into a library to steal the ancient book of the title - so far, so mundane - but from there it becomes something else entirely; characters both real and archetypal weave through Sumerian myth, modern backwoods America, the trenches of WW1 and a whole slew of parallel universes, often all within the same paragraph...

For this reason, it's a hard book to describe, and for some people it may be a hard book to read - if you like linear stories with a beginning, a middle and an end then this probably isn't for you. The nearest (though rather inexact) equivalent, with its fragmented mixture of parallel personalities, universe-hopping and sneaky social commentary, is probably Joanna Russ's The Female Man; with a style somewhere between William Burroughs and Lord Dunsany, it is an utter joy to read. Beautifully and masterfully done.


Humpty Dumpty: An Oval - Damon Knight

"A modern classic in the making," said the blurb, somewhat prematurely as it turned out. I first saw this book in a Key West bookshop in 2000, but as "Jaguars Ripped My Flesh!" looked more interesting I bought that instead, making a mental note of the title and planning to pick up a copy later. In the meantime, the book seems to have sunk without trace, and is now quite hard to get hold of. Having now read it, I'm not entirely surprised.

Wellington Stout is an underwear salesman in late middle-age, who has been shot in the head while delivering a mysterious package in Milan. The book follows his increasingly surreal quest to find out what happened, pursued by shady figures, while the earth starts to disintegrate under various natural disasters and alien invasions. Is this all a conspiracy led by dentists? Is he doing the travelling but hallucinating the details? Is he actually still in the hospital? Or what? Unfortunately it's quite difficult to care.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad book; it's well written and the surreality is quite engaging. However, it just seems to lack a point. By the end, it's clear that even knowing the answer to Knight's puzzle (he has put some clues on Amazon), the book still doesn't make sense. It was a nice idea, but doesn't really work.


The Magicians' Guild - Trudi Canavan

The MAgician's Guild cover

This was something of a disappointment. The blurb sounded very promising - citywide purges by a mysterious guild of magicians, rebellion from the streets - but the book itself turned out to be rather wet. The author's just too damn nice about everything - yes, the magicians purge the city, but they don't actually kill anyone (except by accident), they just push them out through the gates. Yes, the guild is trying to hunt down the rogue magician, but only so they can help her. Yes, there's a bad guy with a wicked plan, but it's actually not very wicked at all, just a bit petty and snobbish.

Canavan also has an annoying habit of making up words for things that already have names, thankyouverymuch (a "bolhouse"? Oh, it's just a pub, where they drink "bol"). If it's a spider, then call it a bloody spider. Made-up words rarely add anything to a story, and they're usually just slightly irritating.

To be fair, I did manage to finish the book, and if you're a teenager you may well enjoy it, but it doesn't have a lot to offer an older audience. I won't be reading any more of hers unless she gets considerably nastier.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

About this blog

"A book to kill time for those that like it better dead."
- Dame Rose Macaulay

Sometimes books are so good that food and sleep are just inconvenient interruptions. Sometimes they have me reaching for the matches. I've reviewed a few of these joys and atrocities on Amazon, but it was about time I put them all together on one site, so here it is.

Most of these will be genre fiction - SF, fantasy, horror and the occasional crime thriller - but I'll read pretty much anything. And if I don't like it, I will say so. If no-one gets the Nul Points score, how will the real gems stand out?

If anyone actually reads this blog and disagrees with me, feel free to comment; likewise if anyone wants to send me review copies, let me know and I'll provide an address (my email is ildrinn [at] yahoo [dot] com). Until then, there's plenty in the bookcase to be getting on with...

Note: I do accept self-published books, but if they're shit, I will have no mercy and give no quarter. You have been warned.