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The Grail Quest (1) - Harlequin
The Grail Quest (1) - Harlequin
by Bernard Cornwell
Edition: Paperback

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining adventure, but lacks depth, 20 Sept. 2007
"Harlequin" (also known by its US title, "The Archer's Tale") is the first book in Cornwell's Grail Quest trilogy and follows the experiences of young longbowman Thomas of Hookton during the early years of what will become known as the Hundred Years' War. When Thomas's father is killed and his village destroyed by French raiders, he vows revenge upon those responsible and makes it his goal to recover the holy relic - the lance of St George - that they stole from Hookton's church. Years later, as he finds himself fighting for King and country in Brittany, he starts to discover the nature of his enemy, the Harlequin, and of his own destiny in defending Christendom.

This is an entertaining and fast-paced tale, in the course of which Thomas joins battle countless times, makes both enemies and friends, is outlawed and then reconciled, finds love, has it taken away, and finds it again, while a host of supporting characters enter and disappear from the narrative. Unfortunately this fast pace means that there is little overall sense of direction to the book, and since the quest for the Grail forms only a subplot in this first volume it means unfortunately that the narrative lacks much depth. Thomas, too, is not as compelling a character as Cornwell's other heroes, Derfel (of the Warlord Chronicles), and Uhtred (of the Saxon Stories). He remains a rather bland and disinterested figure and shows little development over the course of the book, and it is difficult for the reader to feel an emotional connection with him.

On the other hand Cornwell is very good at fleshing out his story with a cast of interesting supporting characters. Two in particular stand out, namely Thomas's employer, the gruff William Skeat, and his sworn enemy, the bitter and penniless knight Sir Simon Jekyll, while many other refreshingly quirky minor characters lend personality and life to the setting. Cornwell expertly creates a real sense of time and place, and his depictions of the medieval towns of of La Roche-Derrien and Rennes, and of the French countryside, are colourful and vivid. He does well, too, to communicate the drive and often the desperation felt within the English army, as well as the utter destruction inflicted upon the French. His battle scenes are likewise engaging and his treatment of the Battle of Crécy, the climax of the book, is excellent.

Everything considered, "Harlequin" is a great yarn, not by any means Cornwell's best work but very readable nonetheless. I would be interested to see how he develops Thomas's character and his quest in the sequels, "Vagabond" and "Heretic".


Time
Time
by Stephen Baxter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Visionary and compelling - a novel of tremendous scope, 5 Sept. 2007
This review is from: Time (Paperback)
"Time", the first book in Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy, follows the story of Reid Malenfant, washout NASA astronaut and entrepreneur with ambitions of propelling humanity beyond the the confines of Earth and towards limitless expansion among the stars. However, when a genius mathematician arrives at his Nevada headquarters predicting the end of the human race in only 200 years, Malenfant throws all his efforts into finding out how this potential catastrophe can be avoided. Before long he finds himself on his way to a remote asteroid in search of answers - regarding both the nature of the universe itself and humanity's purpose within it. At the same time a new phenomenon is sweeping Earth: a sudden wave of hyper-intelligent children. Are they to be encouraged or feared? Are they connected to the doomsday predictions? Into the middle of all this Baxter still finds room to work in messages from the future, genetically enhanced squid, and a mysterious alien portal - all of which combine to create a rich and diverse possible future.

The story is told in slightly unusual fashion for the genre, employing not only simple third-person narrative but also faux journal entries, newspaper articles and transcripts of television broadcasts. This gives Baxter the flexibility to control the pace of the story as it builds from relatively mundane beginnings towards its epic conclusions. It is also very effective in bringing to life Malenfant's world as it faces up to its future and the prospect of impending apocalypse. His characters are similarly compelling; Malenfant in particular, with his rogueish charisma and classic American can-do spirit, is excellently drawn.

As regards the science, the mere fact that Baxter has been able to write a coherent work of fiction about such grand cosmological themes is remarkable. That he has done it in such a plausible and engaging fashion is even more remarkable. Much of what he describes has been drawn together from real scientific research, as he explains in his Afterword. There are perhaps a couple of inconsistencies (as other reviewers have pointed out), but these are mere blemishes in an otherwise excellent book. (Incidentally, for further reading on some of the cosmological questions raised in "Time", I would highly recommend "The Goldilocks Enigma" by Paul Davies.)

Everything considered, "Time" is an astounding novel with tremendous scope. Baxter shows himself to be an exemplary writer of modern SF and I very much look forward to reading the sequels, "Space" and "Origin".


The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?
The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?
by Paul Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious, magisterial, thought-provoking - Davies tackles the big questions, 27 Aug. 2007
In "The Golidlocks Engima: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?", physicist Paul Davies explains the nature of the cosmos and seeks to provide some answers to a question which has frustrated philosophers, theologians and scientists alike: why do conditions in the universe appear to be so finely tuned as to allow for the emergence of life and consciousness? It is challenging reading (it is a challenging subject) and even those familiar with the subject will pause on occasion for a moment's head-scratching.

The book can be said to fall roughly into two sections, each taking up about 150 of the total 300 pages. The first (chapters 1-6) explores the nature of the universe, from the geometry of spacetime to the fine structure of matter, and the fundamental forces which underlie both. Davies covers all the usual topics you would expect - the big bang, microwave background radiation, dark matter and dark energy - as well as explaining other complicated issues such as the inflation of the early universe. There is a lot of information to take in, densely presented, and Davies' prose can at times prove turgid and difficult to follow. The content would perhaps have benefitted from a little pruning, since not all of it is strictly relevant to the theme of the book.

The second section (chapters 7-10) examines the real meat of the issue, and is the book's real triumph. Having discussed what the universe is made of, Davies turns his attention directly to the book's subtitle and asks *why* the universe is the way it is, whether it could have been made any differently, whether the laws of physics are fixed or mutable, whether our universe exists self-supportingly or whether it forms only part of an extended multiverse, and why anything even exists at all - among other big questions. This is thought-provoking stuff, to say the least. Davies expertly navigates his way through all this material, tying in what we know from modern physics with age-old philosophical problems, and - most importantly - making it all clear, accessible and interesting to the casual reader. Helpfully, he also sums up the principal theories in an Afterword at the end to tie everything together.

Although it takes a while to get going, "The Goldilocks Enigma" is an excellent and enlightening study and therefore well worth persevering with. In the end it serves to emphasise the limitations of our current scientific knowledge and how, though science has explained a great many things about the universe, we are far from a complete explanation of the universe itself. As an alternative introduction to cosmology I would highly recommend Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time", while on the subject of the universe's apparent fine tuning for life, Martin Rees' "Just Six Numbers" is similarly excellent.


The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom Series, Book 1)
The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom Series, Book 1)
by Bernard Cornwell
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An immersive and entertaining coming-of-age tale, 26 July 2007
In "The Last Kingdom", Bernard Cornwell takes the reader back to England as it was the late ninth century. One by one the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are succumbing to Viking invasion. Caught in the midst of the conflict is ten-year-old Uhtred, the orphan son of a Northumbrian lord. Captured by the Danes in the battle for Eoferwic (York), he grows up as a hostage among them and soon finds himself questioning where his loyalties lie - whether with the pagan invaders who fostered and taught him, or with the Christian English, his kinsfolk.

This book, the first in a new series by Cornwell, follows Uhtred's journey through boyhood and adolescence to his coming of age as a man and as a warrior. At the same time the reader is taken on a journey from the far reaches of Northumbria to the heart of the kingdom of Wessex. This means there is a meandering, unconstrained quality to the narrative which nicely reflects Uhtred's childhood freedoms and his relative immaturity, and also makes "The Last Kingdom" more than just an adventure story. Indeed Cornwell provides as detailed a depiction of ninth-century England as it is possible to imagine, expertly weaving the little aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Viking life into his story - including among other things their food and drink, the techniques used in the forging of swords, the building of the Viking long halls and the construction of their famous ships. He has clearly researched this period well and it is this attention to detail that gives his setting life and makes the book so immersive.

Uhtred is unashamedly brutal, and his youthful naivete and arrogance jar at times, but his no-nonsense attitude and lack of respect for authority make it easy for the reader to warm to him. His competency as a warrior so young, and his daring exploits, sometimes stretch the bounds of believability, but even so he remains a compelling character. Part of the reason for this is because Cornwell has Uhtred himself telling the story as an older man - which leads the reader to wonder how much of this old man's yarns one should really believe, and how much his memory has been distorted with passage of time.

Everything considered, "The Last Kingdom" is a very fine read. The foundations for the rest of the series have been well constructed and I definitely look forward to reading "The Pale Horseman", the next book in the sequence.


The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
by David Lodge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and insightful, 9 July 2007
"The Art of Fiction" is divided into 50 chapters, each devoted to a different aspect or theme in fiction (in this case primarily novel-writing). Some of these themes are standard topics: 'Beginning', 'Point of View', 'Introducing a Character', 'Chapters' and 'Ending' for example. Others are more unusual: including 'Suspense', 'Symbolism', 'Epiphany', 'The Telephone' as well as more technical-sounding topics such as 'Aporia' and 'Intertextuality'. Through these themes Lodge explores the construction of the novel and underlines the sheer variety of approaches taken by different writers over the course of time.

Each chapter is drawn from an article in Lodge's own newspaper column, which means that the subject matter is easily accessible and digestible for the casual reader. Lodge's style is easy to read and follow and he occasionally intersperses his analysis with his own anecdotes. This is 'a book to browse in, and dip into', as Lodge himself explains, which assumes very little prior knowledge of the texts concerned. Indeed his subjects are very diverse, ranging from Henry Fielding in the 18th century, and Victorian writers such as Brontė and Dickens, all the way to 20th-century authors including, among many others, George Orwell and Kazuo Ishiguro. However, it is not necessary to have read all - or even any - of these texts, as Lodge begins each chapter with a relevant passage quoted in full to illustrate his point.

The goal of "The Art of Fiction" is to enhance the reader's understanding of modern literature, and not explicitly to teach lessons in composition to aspiring authors. Nevertheless, for any writer it is always instructive to dissect those works which have gone before, and this book would therefore be of tremendous use.

Everything considered, "The Art of Fiction" is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in deconstructing how modern fiction works - either the casual reader or the student. Recommended.


Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Peter Salway
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful introduction - interesting and informative, 2 July 2007
I am a big fan of the idea behind the Very Short Introduction series, and the way in which they provide information in an easily accessible manner with plenty of scope for further reading. Peter Salway's "Roman Britain", while not its finest example, is nevertheless highly interesting.

The writing throughout is fluid and readable; Salway has done an excellent job of condensing a lot of information into a relatively short book without sacrificing the quality of his prose. The book follows a broadly chronological narrative from Julius Caesar's expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, through to Britain's last links with the empire in the middle of the fifth century. Along the way Salway takes the opportunity to bring in other aspects, such as the development of towns and villas and changes in religious culture (including the spread of Christianity), which flesh out the picture of Britannia as a Roman province. The main text is supplemented by maps and a useful chronology at the back links events in Britain with those in the rest of the empire - both of which help to provide some context. There is also a list of suggested further reading, although at 22 titles it makes this book fairly limited as a springboard for further study.

The main text runs to 67 pages, which is very short compared to other examples in the series. "Medieval Britain", for example, weighs in at 150 pages - a better length which allows for more in-depth study of the subject matter. As a result there is not the space in "Roman Britain" to allow for more than an overview (although it is a very respectable one). This, for me at least, proved to be its shortcoming. Still, this VSI is not a bad place to start if you are coming to Roman Britain for the first time. It is certainly more digestible and less daunting than one of the standard histories, such as Sheppard Frere's "Britannia" or Salway's own "A History of Roman Britain" - though both are excellent and also recommended. It would also be worth looking at "Roman Britain" by T.W. Potter and Catherine Johns as an alternative introduction to the subject.

All in all, "Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction" is a good buy that will prove to be of interest both to the casual reader and to the student.


The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
by David Lodge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and insightful, 22 Jun. 2007
"The Art of Fiction" is divided into 50 chapters, each devoted to a different aspect or theme in fiction (in this case primarily novel-writing). Some of these themes are standard topics: 'Beginning', 'Point of View', 'Introducing a Character', 'Chapters' and 'Ending' for example. Others are more unusual: including 'Suspense', 'Symbolism', 'Epiphany', 'The Telephone' as well as more technical-sounding topics such as 'Aporia' and 'Intertextuality'. Through these themes Lodge explores the construction of the novel and underlines the sheer variety of approaches taken by different writers over the course of time.

Each chapter is drawn from an article in Lodge's own newspaper column, which means that the subject matter is easily accessible and digestible for the casual reader. Lodge's style is easy to read and follow and he occasionally intersperses his analysis with his own anecdotes. This is 'a book to browse in, and dip into', as Lodge himself explains, which assumes very little prior knowledge of the texts concerned. Indeed his subjects are very diverse, ranging from Henry Fielding in the 18th century, and Victorian writers such as Brontė and Dickens, all the way to 20th-century authors including, among many others, George Orwell and Kazuo Ishiguro. However, it is not necessary to have read all - or even any - of these texts, as Lodge begins each chapter with a relevant passage quoted in full to illustrate his point.

The goal of "The Art of Fiction" is to enhance the reader's understanding of modern literature, and not explicitly to teach lessons in composition to aspiring authors. Nevertheless, for any writer it is always instructive to dissect those works which have gone before, and this book would therefore be of tremendous use.

Everything considered, "The Art of Fiction" is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in deconstructing how modern fiction works - either the casual reader or the student. Recommended.


Going Postal: A Discworld Novel
Going Postal: A Discworld Novel
by Terry Pratchett
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious and riveting, with a slight edge, 21 Jun. 2007
Terry Pratchett delivers again in "Going Postal" (excuse the pun). This is no less than his 33rd book in the Discworld sequence, but nevertheless ranks among the best.

As the book opens, fraudster extraordinaire Moist von Lipwig is about to be hanged when he is offered a chance of redemption by Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of the city of Ankh-Morpork. Only by agreeing to become Postmaster General and restoring the all-but-defunct Post Office to its former glory can he win his freedom. A number of obstacles stand in his way, but largest of them all is the Grand Trunk Semaphore Company, which controls the network of 'clacks' that provide telecommunications across the continent. Its unscrupulous chairman, Reacher Gilt, is determined to thwart the upstart Moist and to maintain at all costs his monopoly on the communications business.

As we have come to expect from Pratchett's writing the humour is sharp, the dialogue strong and the pace fast. Pratchett knows how to keep a story moving and draw the reader in to the story. Amidst the humour "Going Postal" has a serious undertone too regarding the nature of politics, big business and the growth of technology, as well as about the ability of even hardened criminals to redeem themselves. Though still very funny, this book is therefore slightly grittier and less playful than many of Pratchett's other novels. There is something decidedly edgy about those scenes which involve the technical jargon and workings of the clacks system. In this respect "Going Postal" reminded me of "Night Watch" - another very fine read although much darker again.

All in all, "Going Postal" is an excellent book. Readers coming to the Discworld for the first time would do well to start here, while returning visitors will find a number of pleasing references to earlier novels in the series. As for Moist, I look forward to his return in the forthcoming "Making Money".


Sovereign: 3 (The Shardlake Series)
Sovereign: 3 (The Shardlake Series)
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Paperback

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Immersive and thrilling novel of Tudor England, 5 Jun. 2007
"Sovereign" opens in the autumn of 1541, just as King Henry VIII is approaching York on his Great Progress, a show of power and majesty designed to overawe the restless northerners who rose against him five years previously. Matthew Shardlake, the hunchbacked lawyer, has also been sent to York by Archbishop Cranmer, primarily to assist the lawyers in presenting pleas to the king, but also on a special mission: to oversee the return to London of a dangerous prisoner, a one-time conspirator named Broderick. While Shardlake is in York, however, the death of a glazier leads to the uncovering of a fresh conspiracy against King Henry. As he delves deeper into the mystery, however, he begins to put his own life in danger.

I came to "Sovereign" without having read either of the previous two in the Shardlake series, but thankfully I did not feel that this was required in order to follow the plot. The book has the feel of a political thriller, with a cast of characters jostling for position in the kingdom and Shardlake caught in the middle. The pace is kept up and at no stage did my attention wander from the page. In the last 150 pages, as the story approached its climax, I did start to find myself swamped by the number of characters and all their complex interrelationships. Nevertheless, I didn't feel that this detracted too much from what is a fine novel full of intrigue and action, and the resolution - when it arrives - is both surprising and fitting.

C.J. Sansom has a PhD in History and has clearly researched his period well. He brings out Tudor York and its environs in meticulous detail - from the dilapidated old streets and the provincial language of its citizens to the majesty of the King's pavilion and the Minster - such that it is easy to visualise what sixteenth-century England would have been like. His characters too are for the most part believable and fully rounded, and Shardlake himself clearly undergoes a journey in the course of the book, as he starts to become disillusioned with the institutions of his day (Church, King and State). In drawing such a parallel between Tudor times and our own, Sansom is expertly able to evoke 1541 in a way which speaks to the modern reader.

Everything considered, "Sovereign" is an excellent read which flows well and keeps the action coming. I definitely look forward to the forthcoming "Revelation", the next and fourth volume in the Shardlake series.


The Tenderness of Wolves
The Tenderness of Wolves
by Stef Penney
Edition: Paperback

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging depiction of frontier life, 5 May 2007
"The Tenderness of Wolves" begins in the town of Caulfield, Ontario with the murder of a French trapper, Laurent Jammet, and the simultaneous disappearance of Mrs Ross's adopted son Francis. When officials from the Hudson Bay Company arrive to investigate, suspecting Francis to be the perpetrator, they send a party off in pursuit. They are soon followed by Mrs Ross, anxious to clear her son's name and track down the true murderer, heads off into the wilderness after them together with another suspect, William Parker. Added to this series of events is the matter of an enigmatic inscribed bone tablet previously owned by Jammet, which (it is believed) holds the key to a hitherto unknown Indian written culture.

The book starts very strongly - in fact, I was lured into reading it by the opening extract reproduced in the £1 "The Finalists" book I picked up in my local Costa shop. The switches between first- and third-person narratives are unusual and at first a little off-putting, but are easy to get used to. The large number of characters didn't bother me - in fact I felt they added extra dimensions to the story, which after all, is about Canadian frontier life in all its colour, and not simply about Mrs Ross and her search. However, it was true that keeping track of all their backstories and relationships was difficult and occasionally prove confusing. The writing flows very well - Penney's flair for description is clear, and her attention to detail is fantastic. The pace picks up throughout the book as they get closer to the heart of the mystery. Unfortunately it has to be said that the ending feels somewhat rushed and anticlimactic. A number of key issues and subplots are left hanging in the air without being properly resolved; others are tied up unsatisfyingly quickly.

Nevertheless, "The Tenderness of Wolves" works very well as a patchwork of interlinked stories and half-stories. As a depiction of frontier life in Ontario in 1867, it is therefore very convincing. The main story is never so important that it overshadows the many different and very interesting characters who inhabit this country. In fact to me it was not the desolate wilderness, the forests and the snowy plains which were most striking - although they are well described and they are what most reviewers have picked up on. Rather, I felt that it was Penney's descriptions of the town of Caulfield, the Company outposts Fort Edgar and Hanover House, and the Norwegian religious community at Himmelvanger - all those places where the settlers had imposed themselves on the natural landscape - which were the most evocative.

All in all, Stef Penney has produced a very good and highly readable book, one that I can easily recommend.


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