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D. R. Cantrell (London, United Kingdom)
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Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych)
Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych)
by Ian Tregillis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars immensely enjoyable fantasy, 21 July 2013
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The last time I reviewed a book which smashed together the second world war and magic I was not very polite about it. I can say far nicer things about this one. To start with, the cover art is better. It's still not great, but it is at least better. It also has sympathetic characters with real relationships and the story makes sense. Well, it makes as much sense as any story involving magic can.

The broad outline is that Evil Nazis created one of the Wunderwaffen before the war, by using training and electricity to create a handful of super-soldiers who have magical abilities. They all have different abilities, and look suspiciously like a comic book superhero team: there's the one who is super-strong, the one who burns things, the seer etc. The war goes badly for the good guys who have to, in turn, use magic to defend Britain. In a very nice twist which differentiates this from just about every other story involving magic, magic is not just something that some people can do like running fast or being good at drawing. It has costs. Very serious costs, which we see eating away at characters' consciences, bodies, and even sanity.

I do have a few bones to pick though. The book suffers from American Author Syndrome. Much of it is set in London, but he gets enough little details wrong to be very jarring. In particular there is the mortal sin of not using road names properly: a character talks of "Shaftesbury" and not Shaftesbury Avenue, and of "Trafalgar" but not Trafalgar Square. If the people speaking were Yankees this would be acceptable - it's an error that they make in real life. But they're not. These characters and English and German, both of whom speak of their streets by their full names - and Germans speaking English carry this excellent habit over into the foreign tongue.

I also have a problem with the inconsistent treatment of the seer's abilities, and what is done with them.

She is shown as being able to foretell the future, but somehow this also manages to let her know what the Chain Home radar stations are. Her intelligence is passed to the Luftwaffe, who promptly destroy them, thus winning the Battle of Britain, hence the British use of magic to defend the isles. But this is all rubbish. In reality the Germans had some idea what Chain Home was, and they did try to destroy it. They failed, because the open lattice structures were just about impossible to destroy using 1940 era bombs and bombing accuracy. And even if they had succeeded, Chain Home was but a small part of the air defence system. It's loss would not have lost the battle.

However, these are minor matters, the latter being necessary to set up the great struggle between evil and ... good corrupted into evil. I enjoyed it immensely, and will be reading the two sequels which deal with the cold war, in which the Soviets have captured the German super-soldiers and didn't stop at the Elbe but carried on to the North Sea.


Breakthrough
Breakthrough
Price: £2.01

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Despite its flaws, a creditable first book, 11 July 2013
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This review is from: Breakthrough (Kindle Edition)
This is, I think, the author's first book, and is self-published. I have to be honest, it shows that it's his first, with some fairly elementary and annoying errors.

He says on his website "[I] dreamed of writing action thrillers the way he thought they should be written; stories with unique plots that move and keep the reader guessing until the very end. Enter Breakthrough, a story with a fascinating plot which takes the reader on an exciting ride and makes it virtually impossible to guess the ending."

and he does a pretty good job of achieving that. This book's plot does keep moving and keep the reader guessing, it is an exciting ride, and the ending is unexpected. He's definitely got the right idea, but needs to work on the execution.

Here are some of the execution errors that I noted in the first few pages.

Much of the action occurs near the Bimini islands of the Bahamas. The Bahamas are not in the Caribbean, but in the North Atlantic, but I could live with that if he said they were in the Caribbean or in the Caribbean Sea. But we get the Caribbean Ocean. A speed is given in knots per hour, but it should be just knots. A vessel is described as a "nuclear class submarine", which is incorrect. There are many classes of nuclear submarine, which have class names like Trafalgar or Astute or (for the Yankees) Lafayette or Los Angeles. These are all little things. Tiny, even. But they're like midges - tiny, obviously wrong, and bloody irritating. An editor should have spotted them.

I have a much bigger bone to pick with some of the science. One of the characters has her scientific reputation besmirched because people don't believe her "calculations" that sea level is dropping. It really is dropping in the story, dropping substantially, and it would be utterly trivial to measure it, but apparently no-one thought of, oh, I don't know, looking at a tide gauge. What happens near the end at Tristan da Cunha is ridiculous in itself, but its effects are even less believable. But my biggest is with a couple of little aspects of the story itself. The main bad guy is a silly cardboard cut-out. But worst is (and I can say this without actually giving away anything that matters) the way all the dead good guys come back at the end. Laughable.

So, having ranted and moaned for 400-odd words, what do I think of the book? I think surprisingly well of it actually, partly because I didn't spend much money on it. It's only £2 on the Kindle. And for your coupla quid you do get a decent story that whiles away a few hours, which is the raison d'Ítre of fiction. I hesitate to recommend it, but neither can I say you should avoid it. And, in the hope that the irritations will go away as Grumley gains more experience as a writer and publisher, I'll keep an eye out for his next book.


Intrusion
Intrusion
by Ken MacLeod
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Horrible dystopia, wonderful novel, 5 July 2013
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This review is from: Intrusion (Paperback)
This horrible dystopia sits firmly in the tradition of British science fiction from the 1930s to the 50s. It's an exploration of a society that, while being on the surface far less intrusive, is actually as controlling and conformist as anything Huxley imagined in Brave New World. And while there's no Armageddon, it's concerned with the little people, the middle class, their family life, and their un-looked-for struggle to survive against overwhelming events, in the vein of John Wyndham and John Christopher's "cosy catastrophes". And to cap it all there's even a touch of Orwell's 1984 as the protagonists are tortured into conforming.

One of the most important things to take from it is the idea that what might seem like restriction and control of just one section of society and so not something for everyone to be overly concerned about is actually a symptom of a far deeper rot and so we should all care. In this case it's women who are most obviously repressed, with an alarming lack of bodily autonomy and restricted from most workplaces because of the "dangers" of "fourth hand smoke" leeching out of the walls having been put there by smokers decades ago. The restriction is for the sake of their unborn, nay as-yet-unconceived children. This is, of course, justified. Using science! And that is my biggest gripe with the book. The justification is nonsense, and Hope, the protagonist, is supposed to be well-educated but blithely accepts it:

'But working in offices where people once smoked thirty years ago doesn't seem so risky [as compared to mining].'

'Oh, it isn't', said Crow. 'But it's still risky. That foul stuff leaks out of the walls and floors for decades.'

'Only in tiny amounts,' said Hope.

'Yes!' said Crow. 'That means it's actually riskier than smoking itself, because the amounts are so tiny. I mean, we're talking about femtograms per cubic metre. You know how small that is? It's smaller than a subatomic particle! When you had actual smoke particles in the air, you could at least cough ... these nano- and femto-particles can slip right between the molecules and into your lungs and bloodstream.'

'Yes, well I do understand that', said Hope.

This is especially ridiculous when we see that the society of the novel has a good grounding in physics, physical chemistry, and the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles.

As the story unfolds we see that while the repression of women is the most visible repression - official policy even (although, of course, the state wraps it all in a veneer of deep concern for womens' welfare just as in the 19th century) - everyone else who dares to rebel even a little bit is also targetted eventually.

So much for the synopsis and my political ranting. I suspect that, as is often said of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, you can find something to suit your own pre-conceived notions (I'm too polite to call them prejudices) in any dystopian or utopian novel.

Of course, to be a good novel we need more than a sound political basis and auspicious antecedents. We need an entertaining story whose world and plot make sense, and we need it to be inhabited by people. Macleod, as expected, does just fine. I have minor quibbles about a couple of points in his world - the unwarranted acceptance of ridiculous pseudo-science mentioned above, and the efficacy of "The Fix", the seemingly magical pill whose acceptance the whole story revolves around. And, again barring the above, the characters are people, not just puppets obedient to their master's will. They have doubts, fears, love and joy, and they behave and speak believably.

I have no hesitation in giving this book top marks.


Already Dead: A Joe Pitt Novel, book 1
Already Dead: A Joe Pitt Novel, book 1
by Charlie Huston
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars This is not a vampire book!, 26 May 2013
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I bought this book because some other author recommended it on their blog. That's a great way to find good things to read, and you should do it too. Most authors, at least in so-called genre fiction, have one these days, and I recommend that you track down those of your favourite half dozen and read them occasionally. You'll learn a lot about reading and writing, about how the publishing industry and book trade work, but most importantly, you'll learn about more authors to read. In this case, I wouldn't have bought the book without a recommendation, because a cursory glance at the description on Amazon shows that it is a vampire book. And even worse, it's a mis-spelt "vampyre" book.

The "vampyres" of this tale aren't, thankfully, some magic walking corpses, but are people with a disease - one caused by the also annoyingly mis-spelled "Vyrus" - which makes them crave blood and be unusually sensitive to sunlight. The hero of the tale, one Joe Pitt, is one of them, and manages to live alone instead of in one of the vampire "clans" that make up the criminal underworld of his city, by doing odd jobs for the clans and working as an enforcer and private investigator. So really it isn't a vampire tale at all, it's a noir crime thriller.

It has all the clichés that you'd expect in that genre - the loner hero, violence, fast-talking, double-crosses, femmes fatales and so on - but rises above being cliché by extremely sharp writing, great humour, and a wide variety of characters (there are few mere cardboard cutouts) with distinctive voices. There are a couple of somewhat irritating questions left unanswered at the end, for which I deduct a star, but perhaps they are answered in a sequel, of which there are four. Overall, I recommend this book.


The Apocalypse Codex: Book 4 in The Laundry Files
The Apocalypse Codex: Book 4 in The Laundry Files
by Charles Stross
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Rushed ending, otherwise excellent, 26 May 2013
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This fourth book in Stross's Laundry series is, apparently, like the previous ones, written in a pastiche of some other author's style, but this time it wasn't one that I recognized. It's also a damned fine read.

Many series get tired after a while, as the characters stop developing or worse, develop into one-dimensional archetypes. This doesn't happen here. We learn and see more of both the characters and institutions. We also have a well-developed antagonist, one who is (of course, this is a Laundry book) utterly evil, but for the best of reasons and thinks he is on the side of the angels.

However, I feel that the ending was rather rushed and not particularly believable. No sensible bad guy would leave one half of his Doomsday Device utterly unguarded, especially when he knows that the opposition are in the field. And the idea of the double double-cross and subtle but quick manipulation by the Black Chamber of institutions and individuals is frankly silly. For that I deduct one star. I'd deduct more except that the rest of the book is so gloriously fun to read, deftly combining horror, action and comedy as we have come to expect from the series.

I recommend this book, provided that you have read the previous installments. If you haven't, then you should read them first.


Rule 34
Rule 34
by Charles Stross
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Unconditionally recommended, 13 May 2013
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This review is from: Rule 34 (Paperback)
This is a sequel to Stross's earlier Halting State, although you don't need to be familiar with the earlier work to make sense of this one.

It's a page-turner alright, filled with believable characters having an awful time for our entertainment, and the text sizzles with humour. You'll have to be a geek to understand all the little jokes, but that's not a pre-requisite for enjoying the book, you'll just get more out of it if you're from the right background.

Unconditionally recommended for all but the most puritan of agèd aunts, as it gets a bit nasty at times.


Railtrack and Other Letters
Railtrack and Other Letters
Price: £2.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short and sweet, 7 May 2013
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I read this between overs while having a rock 'n roll weekend watching cricket at a country house. It's good fun, but I'm glad it wasn't any longer than it is, as trolling gets boring after a while. Mr. Hein stops at just the right length.


How Firm a Foundation (Safehold)
How Firm a Foundation (Safehold)
by David Weber
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Once you get past the nautical gibberish, a fine book, 3 May 2013
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This book starts terribly. We are treated to sixty pages of incomprehensible gibberish in which sailors desperately thwart the top-gallants and abaft the mains'l while the sea larboards the weather side. Yes, we get the idea that they're in dire peril, but for God's sake GET ON WITH IT. At a 'mere' 800 pages for the whole book, far fewer than its bulky predecessor in the series A Mighty Fortress, which weighed in at over a thousand, this is approaching 10% of the book, and much of this nautical nonsense serves little purpose. Yes, what little of it is comprehensible to people without peglegs and clavicular psittaciformes is exciting, but it doesn't advance the story much, and certainly not by nearly 10%.

Thankfully, normal service is soon restored and as well as interludes of exciting local action as navies smash each other to bits, the global story is significantly advanced. One particular advance opens the way for what I'm sure will be very dramatic events in the next volume in the series.

Returning to my criticisms of the previous volume, the cover art is far less awful - it's still not great, but at least it's not offensively bad this time - and the internal monologues are kept under better control. They're still there, they're there in everything Weber writes these days, but at least they don't distract too much from events. The stupid names? Well, yeah, they're still there. It wouldn't really be possible to fix that now. But I still hate them.

If it wasn't for the meaningless interludes of ahoying of spinnakers and the stupid names I'd just about award this five out of five shiny gold stars. It's not a great book, but it is at least thoroughly enjoyable, which matters far more to me than all the literariness in the world. Of course, this deep into a series it will make little sense if you've not read all the previous volumes, but with those caveats I recommend it.


Force Cantrithor
Force Cantrithor
Price: £1.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Another fun, cheap self-published novel with some great ideas in it, 3 May 2013
This review is from: Force Cantrithor (Kindle Edition)
Another month, another self-published novel from Michael McCloskey. He don't 'alf work 'ard guvnor. And again, he sent me a free review copy. I have been most remiss in reviewing it. He sent it to me in February, I read it at the beginning of April, and only now, a month later, am I writing my review. Bad David!

First impressions were not good. In fact I'll go further than that. They were downright bad. It wasn't at all clear who the protagonist actually was, his role was unclear, but worst of all was the damned mind-reading. Telepathy smacks too much of magic, something I'm not particularly keen on in fiction, and especially when mixed with science. It's also far too easy to take telepathy too far and end up with an unfeasibly powerful character who is somewhat flat and one-dimensional. I've got a bit weary of telepathy in a science-fictional context from reading David Weber's series of Honor Harrington novels and so I was glad after a few tens of pages to realise that McCloskey doesn't make much use of it, and later on when he does use it there has been a plausible explanation.

I was also glad that my initial confusion about who the hell the protagonist was was soon cleared up just enough to stop me throwing the book down in disgust. Well, from deleting the ebook anyway. In fact, his process of discovering who he is, what has been done to him, and what he can do is a large part of what made the book worth reading. Here we have a character who develops before our eyes, warts and all - and there are oh so many juicy warts!

As usual, McCloskey does a great job with The Other. There are two of them: Our Hero, whose mental state is truly odd, and the evil looking beasties in the cover art.

This isn't to say that the book is entirely without flaw. Some parts of the story are brought in very suddenly and don't quite fit, a sign that a bit more time may be needed on editing - I'd be willing to wait a bit longer between books for this. And I found the female psychiatric assistant Mcclaren to be quite hard to believe. But despite those, McCloskey tells a good exciting story, and mostly tells it well. When you take into account the low price I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this book.


Huawei E5331 21.1Mbps Mi-Fi Router
Huawei E5331 21.1Mbps Mi-Fi Router
Price: £46.68

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unreliable rubbish, 3 May 2013
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While my phone could connect to this, my laptop would only see the wireless network set up by it intermittently, would manage to connect even less often, could hardly ever get an IP address, and on the couple of times it managed to do all that there was massive packet loss between laptop and router. That same laptop is what I'm using right now to type this review, over a wireless link, and connects just fine to every other router I try.

Maybe I just got a duff unit, but even if that's the case, it shows that Huawei's quality control just ain't good enough. Thankfully, Amazon have great customer service so I expect I'll get my money back.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2013 8:38 PM BST


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