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D. R. Cantrell (London, United Kingdom)

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Insidious (Synchronicity Trilogy Book 1)
Insidious (Synchronicity Trilogy Book 1)
Price: 1.66

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great trilogy that only gets better as it goes along, 25 May 2012
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I bought the first book in this trilogy on the strength of reading the author's "The Trilisk Ruins", and am reviewing them all together, as they are just three strands of the same story. If you read only one you won't fully appreciate it - indeed, the individual volumes don't work as well on their own, either not being properly resolved or not having a proper beginning. Thankfully, as with The Trilisk Ruins they're dirt cheap.

They appear to be set earlier in the same universe as The Trilisk Ruins - the authoritarian government is present here too in a somewhat less overbearing form, and personal and military technology is similar too. While these books appear to be set earlier, I believe that they were written later. The writing is definitely more mature, with less hammy dialogue and more time taken to make the characters into people, and there were no immediately obvious plot holes.

The three books largely run in parallel, with each one finishing a little later than its predecessor, each telling the story from a different point of view. It's a surprising device, but one that I found worked very well. It leaves the reader wondering at the end of the first and second volumes, but with good solid conclusions in later books to fill in the gaps that were left. Obviously this means you should read them in order: Insidious first, then Industrious, and finally Ingenious.

While I have rated the series as a whole with four stars out of five, there are large differences between the volumes. The first is by far the worst, consisting too much of rather repetitive action sequences, but it is rescued by the second and third volumes which are much better. The third is particularly good: the antagonist (whose viewpoint we have in this volume) is unlike any I've seen before (McCloskey seems to do aliens well, the one in The Trilisk Ruins was good too) while still being something that humans can empathise with; and the final conclusion comes as a surprise, but is also consistent with everything that has gone before.

Finally, McCloskey deals well with his over-arching themes of the dangers of AI and virtual reality. Never mind whether you agree with that or not, he still addresses them thoughtfully and humanely.

Basic Training (A Short Story)
Basic Training (A Short Story)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's a damned shame it's only available on Kindle, 9 May 2012
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I don't generally read literature, for the simple reason that most of it, while perhaps being beautifully written and plotted and with exquisite characterisation - despite all that, I just don't enjoy it. And given that I read for enjoyment it's understandable that I'm not going to spend my money and - more importantly - my time on it. I get my kicks mostly from low-brow "genre" fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, crime and so on. As some clever chap said, literary fiction is the fiction of introspection and changing the self, genre fiction is the fiction of doing and of changing the world. I like to think that it only says good things about me that I want to change the world to fit me instead of changing myself to conform to the world, and that I enjoy tales of others changing the world.

So why did I buy this? First, it's by Vonnegut. He's one of those few literary writers who I'm confident of buying because I'm already familiar with and enjoy his writing. There are few other literary writers whose work I'd buy sight-unseen, and Vonnegut veers rather towards the fiction of doing in his literature!

And then it was also cheap, immediately available, and I wanted something to read right now, and could have it delivered to my Kindle in moments.

It's a short tale - equivalent to about 80 pages in print - of a lad sent to live with a stern disciplinarian relative, his rebellion, punishment, and of his forgiveness when he is willing to give up everything even for someone who he dislikes. Underlying this is the realisation that eventually dawns that when an adult controls and disciplines a child it isn't necessarily arbitrary and isn't done to mould the child into a clone of the adult, but is done from love and a desire to help the child learn. It's a bit slow to start, especially if, like me, your diet is mostly the "fiction of doing", but it's worth persevering with. You'll polish it off quickly and enjoy almost every minute of it.

So why only four stars? It grieves me that it is restricted to Kindle users only. I hope that one day it'll appear on paper, either on its own or in an anthology.

Through Struggle, the Stars (The Human Reach Book 1)
Through Struggle, the Stars (The Human Reach Book 1)
Price: 2.04

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good value entertainment, 9 May 2012
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... or, as I immediately thought, Per ardua ad astra. An apt title for this story, and the Latin version even shows up in the text, with the institution bearing it being a direct descendant of the Royal Flying Corps, who are congratulated on their far-sightedness.

It's a tale of a young man who enlists in the military with all kinds of gung-ho ideas about what he wants to do, but who ends up, sulkily and largely by accident, as an intelligence officer - and finds that he thoroughly enjoys it. The world-building is intriguing and largely consistent, but the characters are a little flat. But for less than two quid I can't complain. It was enjoyable, and even if it's a bit of fairly mindless cheese, it's good value for money.

Karl Jenkins: Stabat Mater
Karl Jenkins: Stabat Mater
Price: 12.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Did he even bother to look at the words he was setting to music?, 1 May 2012
My parents went to a performance of Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater and bought me a CD recording. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand the music really is good, but ... and it's two really big buts ...

Jenkins mixes "ethnic" music into his compositions so often that it's beginning to get a bit hackneyed and cheap. These sections don't fit well with the rest, and give the impression of only being there to be "right on".

A far bigger "but" concerns his treatment of the text. For a meditation on the desolation of a mother at the brutal torture and execution of her son, the music is, at least in places, far too light and catchy. What is more, although the CD liner notes provide a translation, the setting doesn't seem to pay much attention to the actual meaning. For example, the verse:

Cuius animam gementem / contristatam et dolentem / pertransivit gladius.

ends with the last line repeated (fair enough, this is common and doesn't detract from the meaning) - but then the last word is repeated, and even worse is repeated in a major key in a way that makes it seem heroic and triumphant! So what's actually being sung is:

Through her weeping soul / compassionate and grieving / a sword passed.

a sword passed.

a sword! Hurrah!

The treatment of the very first verse ain't great either. It's as if he came up with a fantastic tune and only later tried to set the words to it instead of writing the music for the words. Because he runs out of syllables a bit early, the opening verse:

Stabat mater dolorosa / iuxta Crucem lacrimosa, / dum pendebat Filius

comes out as:

Stabat mater dolorosa / iuxta Crucem lacrimosa, / dum pendebat Filiuuu-uuuuu-uuu-uuu-uuuu-uuuus

Oh dear. 7 out of 10 for the music, but as my Latin masters used to say, "3 out of 10, must try harder". Overall, a mere 4 out of 10. The seeming ignorance of the text spoilt it terribly for me.

A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.86

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A thousand pages of nothing happening beautifully, 1 May 2012
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Blimey, Martin don't half go on! This is the fifth volume in his ongoing epic fantasy series "A Song Of Ice and Fire". It was originally intended to be part of volume four, but because of Martin's uncontrollable logorrhoea that got split in two because it was simply too big to print. Once split, the first half, which became volume 4 "A Feast for Crows", was still a hefty 976 pages. We then waited five years for this, the second half. Martin obviously took the opportunity to fiddle with it and no doubt substantially write parts of it. The resulting fifth volume ended up so big that in some editions it was itself printed in two volumes, called "Dreams and Dust" and "After the Feast", which I am reviewing together.

It's fairly clear where he's fiddled too. A Feast for Crows ended up being just about events and people in the southern half of Westeros (Martin's fictional world), and A Dance With Dragons was supposed to simply be the northern half of the same story, with events happening in parallel. It didn't work out quite that way. All of the first half (Dreams and Dust) and some of the second (After the Feast ) is parallel to A Feast for Crows, but not all of it, with action in the last third returning south and happening after A Feast for Crows had finished. Confused? Actually, you won't be. The temporal shenanigans are handled well.

What is still a bit confusing is, just as I criticised in A Feast for Crows, some of the relationships between people. Us modern denizens of a democratic capitalist world just aren't used to keeping track of feudal relationships and having family and clan relationships be so important is alien to us. No doubt my primitive ancestors of four or five hundred years ago would cope much better with this than I can - those of them who could read! I occasionally found myself having to turn to the genealogies in the back. It's good that they're provided, but it's irritating that they're necessary.

Characterisation is excellent. They are all real, as are the places they inhabit - you can almost smell the fear, filth and food, and feel the cold of the far north and the blazing heat and thirst of southern oceans. If anything, this is even better done than in the previous volumes, and so you would expect me to give it higher marks than A Feast for Crows. But I'm not going to. Yes, it's marginally superior in that regard, but the prolixity and the poor planning evident in the haphazard splitting of volumes bugged me. It only bugged me a bit, but on top of that, there's a sense in which nothing much of consequence seems to happen in A Dance With Dragons, as if everyone is holding their breath. And, now that I look back on the previous volume, I have the same feeling about that too - there was lots of rushing around and busyness, but little of it to much great purpose.

No Title Available

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good unfinished prototype, caveat emptor, 25 Mar 2012
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There are now several models of Kindle available, of which two are available in the UK. Other parts of the world have other models available which may be cheaper but are also infested with adverts and therefore are rubbish. Of the two now available in the UK, I've only used what they now call the "Kindle Keyboard", so please bear that in mind when reading this. That model is 60 more expensive than the keyboard-less version, but as well as the keyboard it also has a 3G connection so you can download books (and, of course, pay for books) on the move, it has somewhat better battery life (I charge mine overnight once every few weeks - it would be more like once a week if I left the 3G and Wifi connections up all the time), and it has twice as much storage. Of course, for books you don't need much storage. The 2GB in the keyboard-less model is enough for hundreds of books, and the extra storage will only really matter if you use it for audio-books, which are not available on the keyboard-less model.

The Kindle is great and I love it. If you read a lot you'll be familiar with the problem of having to carry several books with you when you go on holiday, or two with you on the journey to work in case you finish one in mid-travel. I now have a dozen or so books loaded on my Kindle, plus a few short stories, some magazines, and essays. Many of them were free - either free from Amazon's website, or from places like Project Gutenberg or Baen Books, or downloaded from other random websites. Having all of Project Gutenberg available on demand in my pocket is awesome.

The Kindle is also excellent for discovering new authors - both those that are new to me and those that are new to writing - because Amazon do a pretty decent job of making recommendations, and because you can easily add books outwith Amazon's ecosystem. Subscribe to one of your favourite authors' blogs and you'll soon find link after link to other authors, books that authors have put on the web for free, great short stories, and so on.

So why only three stars? There are all kinds of niggling little problems. Some are design flaws in the Kindle hardware, some are software bugs and poor user interface design, and some are inherent limitations in media which have Digital Restrictions Management. Let's look at those in reverse order.

The Kindle can read DRM-free books from third-parties in a number of common formats just fine. However, books bought from Amazone are infected with DRM. While it can be easily stripped out, but this really shouldn't be necessary. All DRM schemes are doomed to failure, and yet users who wish to move their books to a better device (and you can bet that someone will come out with something better in the future) have to go through this annoying dance. E-book vendors (well, most of them - Baen are a splendid counter-example) insist that you mustn't lend your books to your friends or sell them second-hand. You can, of course, if you strip out the DRM. Publishers only harm themselves by preventing lending, as this means that I can't so easily introduce someone to a new author. It's less obvious, but killing off the second-hand market will also harm them in the long term. When I was young and didn't have much money, I bought second-hand almost exclusively. Second-hand books got me hooked on reading. These days I buy new almost all the time. I wouldn't read as much now - and hence spend as much money with publishers - if I hadn't got hooked on cheap second-hand books. And even for well-off readers, the second-hand market is a good way for people to find out about authors they hadn't previously read.

DRM is closely related to the problem that some books are only available in some countries. This is because authors sell rights to different publishers in different places. However, surely if this were actually enforceable I wouldn't be able to buy US editions of paper books in the UK, and people in the US wouldn't be able to buy UK editions. And yet that works just fine. There is no reason for these stupid geographical restrictions. This plagued DVD sales early on until region-cracking hardware and software became common-place, but these days there's nothing stopping people from buying "US-only" DVDs in the UK through Amazon's website so their enforceing this for e-books is stupid. They should use their muscle to slap the publishers into line and make them get rid of this idiocy.

On to the software bugs. There is at least one really nasty bug to do with wireless networks which Amazon must know about - it's all over their user support forums - but don't seem to care about fixing, and the user interface seems to be a bit obtuse. You would think that the UI tools for getting books onto the Kindle and for deleting them would be close to each other, but they're not. To get a book onto the Kindle, press the Menu button, then navigate to the Kindle Store. To get a book off the Kindle, you'd think that you want to go into that menu, but no, you have to do a funny dance with the arrow keys on the home screen. There are lots of other little UI niggles too, the worst being the on-screen menus for typing punctuation characters and numbers when annotating a book. The damned thing has a shift key for typing capitals, so why the hell doesn't it have another meta key for typing symbols? This is bad UI design plain and simple, and I dread to think what it's like on the keyboard-less version.

Another serious UI problem is that organising books into "collections" is fiddly, and can only be done via the Kindle's built-in software. It would work much better if you could mount the Kindle as a drive on your computer (you can) and then organise books into folders (you can't). And if you're going to have many hundred books on the device at once, a thousand or more even, like Amazon say you can, being able to organise them easily and effectively is essential. This UI flaw effectively makes it impractical to have more than a few dozen books on the device at once, which also means that having gigabytes of memory is pointless. Half a gig would be fine, and would make it a few quid cheaper.

And finally, the big hardware bug. The e-ink screen is very good indeed. It's clear, high-contrast, and can be read easily under all lighting conditions that you could read a paper book. It is also fragile and unprotected. The fragile pixels of an LCD display are at least protected behind a sheet of glass or plastic, but the e-ink display is right on the surface with only the thinnest covering layer. This makes it very vulnerable to damage. I'm on my second Kindle already, the first breaking after just a couple of months. I have no idea how I managed to break the screen - I didn't bash it hard, or sit on it, I just carried it in my pocket like people do in Amazon's own adverts for the silly thing - but it broke anyway. This would seem to be a very common failure mode, by far the most common amongst Kindle users I've spoken to, and one with which Amazon's customer support staff are very familiar judging by how fast they said they'd send me a replacement. Given that incredibly quick replacement I don't actually fault them for this, I just think it's something you need to be aware of.

Let's compare the models. Starting with the cheap keyboard-less model as a baseline, what extras do you get in the more expensive model? More memory, but that's only useful for audio books, so most people won't use it. A keyboard, which I use for making notes as I'm reading, but which is also nigh-on essential if you want to shop for books on the Kindle itself. 3G, which is useful for when you are away from a proper network. Of course, the lack of 3G on the cheap model means that you're less likely to be able to shop for books on it too - a network connection and a keyboard, in the form of a proper computer, tend to go together!

Do I recommend a Kindle? Yes, with reservations. The fragile screen is a problem, mostly mitigated by excellent customer service, although it might be more serious if you didn't have good access to a postal service such as if you spend lots of time travelling or live somewhere very remote. The software problems can be worked around but they, in conjunction with the fragility, mean that I think of the Kindle as being more of a prototype than a finished, polished product. DRM isn't much of an issue as it is easily worked around. The inability to legally lend a book to a friend or sell your books second-hand is a big drawback, although this affects all of the Kindle's competitors too.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 24, 2012 12:55 PM BST

The Translation of Father Torturo
The Translation of Father Torturo
by Brendan Connell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful tribute to Rolfe, 18 Mar 2012
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One of the best works of fiction in the English language is Hadrian the Seventh, by Frederick Rolfe. It is shameful that it is so little-known. Connell therefore gets off to a great start when he dedicates this book to Rolfe "for the design which I so meanly twisted". In both books, a priest of somewhat dubious antecedents is catapulted into the papacy, embarks on a whirlwind of reform, and is ultimately offed. But that's about as far as the parallels go.

Connell's Xaviero Torturo is a nasty piece of work. A bully as a child, but highly intellectual, he is mentored by a village priest who is himself somewhat dodgy - they both dabble in the occult and, in Torturo's case, in "black magic". Torturo is also a thief, a blackmailer, and he has at least four people killed, and may have killed two more himself. Rolfe's priest, George Arthur Rose is instead a paragon of virtue who merely wants to be a priest and finds his ascent to the throne of Peter to be baffling.

Both, however, are quite competent popes - both spark something of a revival of catholicism, Rose by his piety and actually bothering to live by what it says in the bible, Torturo by fake "miracles". And both works - and both fictional popes - are scathing about the corruption both personal and institutional that is the Roman church. Torturo is, of course, happy to use that corruption for his own ends but is at least honest enough to see it as hypocritical. And finally, both fictional popes have mercifully (for the rest of the Roman hierarchy!) short reigns. Rose falls to an assassin opposed to catholicism, whereas Torturo's crimes eventually catch up with him.

Torturo actually survives, being merely thought to be dead, and there are all kinds of delicious possibilities for the way things could continue after the book ends. Normally when this sort of thing happens, I am left shouting at the author "for god's sake learn to write an ending" but in this case, no. Things are tied up neatly, and yet the reader is still left to think for himself. And therefore I whole-heartedly recommend this book.

World War Z
World War Z
by Max Brooks
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good fun - and truly horrific, 14 Mar 2012
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This review is from: World War Z (Paperback)
With this book and its prequel "The Zombie Survival Guide", Brooks pretty much brought the zombie genre of horror back to life, if you'll pardon the expression. And it's jolly good.

The author uses the conceit of documenting personal tales for a history of "the zombie war", as a counterpoint to the dry official history of facts and figures, and it consists of multiple "interviews" between the author and individuals from all walks of life who recount their experiences from immediately before, from during, and from the ensuing cleanup after the war. Most of the interviewees have very similar voices, but their experiences differ widely, and most of them have a strong human element to them. And while some are merely about killing zombies, many are about terror, fear, and hope.

By being broken down into short interviews instead of one long narrative - although the interviews are arranged roughly chronologically and there is some interaction between them - it is particularly well suited to reading a bit at a time while commuting with all the other gray city zombies.

Mission of Honor (Honor Harrington)
Mission of Honor (Honor Harrington)
by David Weber
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 5.60

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Only buy this if you're already a fan, 14 Mar 2012
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Weber's long series of books set in the "Honorverse" is thoroughly enjoyable if you like "military science fiction". That is, if you like mind-cheese with lots of stuff blowing up. Unlike most other authors in this sub-genre, Weber even manages to make his characters believable and sympathetic, to sometimes have realistic conversations and motivations. And the universe he creates is, on the whole, consistent.

The series went through a bad patch a few books back where there was lots of "jaw jaw" and very little of the "war war" that made the series so exciting. But I'm pleased to say that with the previous installment (At All Costs) and this one, he's back on form.

I have three criticisms. The first is that the books will make little sense unless you've read the previous installments. That's fair enough. Authors writing series have to strike a balance between making later works accessible to newcomers and annoying their established customers with repeated material. In a short series, a bit of repetition won't do any harm, but in this one - 12 books so far, with at least two more in the pipeline and quite probably more to come - it would be actively harmful.

The second is related to the first, but is, I think, rather more important. There are several spin-off series, also set in the same universe, which some readers may not have bothered with. Unfortunately one of them, the "Wages of Sin" series, turns out to be of vital importance, and the "Saganami Island" series is also of some relevance to this book and, to a lesser extent, to the previous one. Keeping track not only of a long main series with several parallel interacting plot threads (but at least they evolve alongside each other in a single series) but also of at least one and potentially several other series at the same time is hard. It's worth doing, but hard.

And finally, remember how I said that the universe Weber has created is mostly consistent? The big economic inconsistency is beginning to bite, hard. He knows it - he even has some characters talk about how it makes no sense. He tries to justify it as being a front for a huge conspiracy, but huge conspiracies just don't work. The one he's written involves literally millions of people, at least thousands of whom are scattered all over the place amongst other polities and societies, and they're actually multi-generational sleeper agents. He expects us to believe that the children of sleeper agents will be content to be brought up as normal people (you can't trust young children with such secrets, after all), to form friendships, perhaps fall in love with members of the host society, and, when you inform them of their family's hidden role for them to just accept it. Even if somehow most of them held it together, all it would take would be for a handful to blow the whistle and, given how many there are, this must happen - and yet it doesn't for hundreds of years, not until narrative imperative compels it. I can ignore this, I read lots of sci-fi, much of it in the "bad but entertaining" mould, and so my suspension of disbelief muscle gets a regular workout. But even so, it is irritating.

Those last two niggles, plus the entire series's utter lack of anything approaching literary value means it gets only three stars. I recommend it for those who are already Honorverse fans (not that there's much point in recommending it as you'll all buy it anyway) and I recommend the Honorverse as a whole to all sci-fi fans, but I have to insist that you read the books in order. Specifically, in publication order, so that you get the other series at the right time.

Land of the Dead (In the Time of the Sixth Sun)
Land of the Dead (In the Time of the Sixth Sun)
by Thomas Harlan
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 4.88

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good fun, spoiled by the improbable explanation at the end, 12 Feb 2012
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On to book three in this series and series-itis still fails to rear its ugly head - indeed, it's probably the best of the lot so far. We get some more background on the world the characters live in and why it differs from real history, and for most of the book it is refreshingly free of mumbo-jumbo. However, it will again fail to stand on its own, even more so than book two - this one pretty much starts at the point the previous one ended, and gives very little personal background on the major characters. Some of those characters are developed some more, which is nice to see, but even so the author assumes that you already know who they are and what they've done previously.

Remember how I said that for most of the book it is free of mumbo-jumbo? Well, unfortunately it really falls on its face in the last few pages. Sure, it's dressed up in rationalism, but if you are in the least bit sceptical, then you will just be plain annoyed at how the author seems to think that so many peoples' actions can be so carefully manipulated to make individuals do exactly what is needed. I'm afraid that that holds no water whatsoever. You can, of course, manipulate the actions of large numbers of people, giving them little pushes onto a new course - advertisers and politicians do this all the time - but to spend the last few pages of what had been an excellent story up until that point attempting to list all the people whose actions had been chosen in advance by the man behind the curtain is just silly and leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Not only is this explanation of what's been happening annoying, it shouldn't really be necessary.

Harlan clearly needs to study human behaviour a bit more. I recommend Seldon's papers on the subject.
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