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D. R. Cantrell (London, United Kingdom)
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Out of the Dark
Out of the Dark
by David Weber
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.19

2.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but there's not much else going for it, 30 Oct 2011
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This review is from: Out of the Dark (Paperback)
There's an awful lot wrong with this book. To start with, the setup of an alien survey of Earth done several hundred years ago, and then the invasion in the present having the crap kicked out of it because human technology evolved "unnaturally fast" has been done before, by Harry Turtledove - and as surprising as this may be, Turtledove did it better: Turtledove's aliens have far more of a back-story and they behave more like rational beings. Then all too often the book devolves into spec sheets for various weapons. There's at least a hint of Jerry Ahern's so-awful-you-have-to-keep-reading "The Survivalist" series in some of the characters. And the ending, where Vlad The Impaler and his army of vampires kills all the aliens in a couple of nights is not only stupid, it's badly executed too. Weber's vampires are so ludicrously powerful as to make what little we get of Dracula's back-story implausible.

The idea of having the undead rise up in defence of Earth - in defence of their hunting preserve - is not a bad one, but the execution is awful.

On the plus side, Weber knows how to keep you turning the pages, and it is at least entertaining. But one to get second-hand for pennies and read once, I think, no more.


The Mysterious Island
The Mysterious Island
Price: 0.00

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Make sure you pick the right edition!, 2 Oct 2011
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This book unfortunately exists in many different editions, with various cuts and abridgements from the French original. The edition I read is the Project Gutenberg edition, originally published as a serial in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph in 1876. You should be careful which edition you choose to read, as many editions are abridged from the French original, and British editions in particular were often quite heavily cut because of anti-Imperial sentiment in the book.

It is the tale of a handful of men (all square-jawed and highly competent, of course) who escape from a besieged city by balloon during the American civil war, and are blown by a storm to an unknown island in the south Pacific. There they set to building and acquiring all the necessities of civilised Victorian life, having occasional adventures with bad weather and pirates. At a few moments, there are helpful interventions by a mysterious outside force - and hence the name of the book.

But three things are far more mysterious. First of all, how they got there. Even in Verne's time, it was known that hurricanes and other storms cycle around the northern and southern oceans, never crossing the equator and never crossing significant land-masses. How, then, does a balloon get blown in a single storm from Virginia to somewhere roughly a quarter of the way from New Zealand to Chile, across land and across the doldrums? Second, the geology of the island. Again, it was well-known in Verne's time that you don't find sedimentary and igneous rock together in the way that he shows. It is ridiculous to find a seam of coal in the side of an active volcano! Finally, the island has some very odd flora and fauna, seemingly picked from lots of different places all over the world. Particularly odd are the species of rabbits which can be trapped by baiting snares with flesh. I'm quite sure that Verne knew that rabbits are vegetarians!

Those aside, which will offend modern readers but perhaps are allowable because Verne's original readers were barely literate nineteenth century savages and so they let him hang a story off them, if you can suspend your disbelief, there's a half-decent story here. It's very much in the "Boys' Own Paper" mould, with little thought for the consequences of projects such as re-directing rivers or exterminating species. There is, of course, nothing wrong with either of these things, but it must be done carefully - which our Victorian heroes do not. Never mind, they don't suffer for it.

After many adventures, a climax is reached where the island's volcano comes back to life, their protector is found and then dies, and the island is finally destroyed in a cataclysmic eruption. The dénouement is I'm afraid rather disappointing and positively reeks of Deus Ex Machina. They all survive the massive explosion, just happening to end up on the only bit of rock left above water; there's no food or fresh water but a ship arrives just in the nick of time; and despite losing everything else, including the ship that they were building, the colonists manage to keep hold of the vast hoard of diamonds that the Protector had given them.

Overall, I liked this story a lot. Because this translation was done for serialisation in a newspaper, it breaks down conveniently into small chunks, ideal for dipping in and out of. I would probably have awarded it four stars, but I knocked one off for the hurried ending.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 28, 2012 1:25 PM GMT


The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars There's very little here, but what there is is beautiful, 2 Oct 2011
According to the front cover, this is "one of the great books of the [20th] century". Seeing that it was published in 1997, that means that it is supposedly up there with Churchill's "History of the English-Speaking Peoples", Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", Kafka's "Metamorphosis", Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", and, because I have to get a great French book into the list, Camus' "L'Etranger". No, this is not one of the great books of the 20th century. Nor is it "now a major motion picture", as is also claimed on the cover. The French make some excellent films, but the only ones which come close to being "major" are "Les Visiteurs" and "Léon". On the other hand, it is, perhaps, as some of the back-cover blurb says, "the most remarkable memoir of our time", because of the method in which it was written. The author, who was completely paralysed apart from his head, dictated it by blinking. I'm kinda surprised that he did it by having his secretary go through the entire alphabet (in letter-frequency order) for each letter and he would blink at the appropriate place, instead of using Morse code.

You won't be surprised to learn, given the method of writing, that it's very short - just 140 widely-spaced semi-large-print pages, with a blank page before each of the three or four-page chapters. There's very little here. But what there is is beautiful. I read an English translation, and it's clear that the beautiful language is at least in part the work of Jeremy Leggatt, the translator. The beautiful content, however, is all Bauby. There's no connecting narrative, certainly no story - just a few of his thoughts, reminiscences from before the accident which crippled him, and observations of his life in hospital, but despite that, I recommend it.


Glory Lane
Glory Lane
by Alan D. Forster
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Don't expect quality, but it is at least a quick and entertaining read., 2 Oct 2011
This review is from: Glory Lane (Mass Market Paperback)
First impressions of this book - from the cover art and the blurb on the back cover - are not good. The cover art by Jim Gurney is similar to that of Josh Kirby on Pratchett's covers, only not as good, and the blurb makes it sound like just a bad comedy of one-dimensional automatons. So it's a good thing that the book was free froma fellow Bookmooch and user I didn't see it before requesting it.

Right from the start, there are at least two Real Characters, plus a couple who are, if a bit stereotyped, are at least three dimensional. Incidental characters who pop up later are also reasonably well-drawn. The plot is, of course, absurd. We knew that from the cover art, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that doesn't really matter. The comedy is primarily in observing the characters, and I recommend it as a bit of light reading. Don't expect actual quality, but it is at least a quick and entertaining read.


A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)
A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Confusing and unapproachable, only worth bothering with if you've read all the prequels, 2 Oct 2011
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Predictably, the quality is still dropping. Yet again, the number of people and factions is confusing, but this time the confusion is compounded by confusion over what they're all doing. Some key characters' personalities have changed drastically - for, perhaps, understandable reasons, but it's still a bit jarring when a previously amoral character "finds god", so to speak. Actions and events are confused too, as the war in the previous volumes has mostly fizzled out and the victors are mopping up the few remaining hold-outs and the land is crawling with displaced bands of soldiers from both sides, who have taken up a life of banditry. It's still worth reading if you've stuck with the series so far, but there's no way that you can read this without having read the previous three volumes.

I don't mind long series of books, but I am somewhat surprised by the number of authors who write them without leaving any way for new readers to jump in half way through and to actually understand what's going on. It seems that in modern sci-fi and fantasy it is almost required that authors make their second and subsequent volumes in a series completely unapproachable for new readers! This isn't the case elsewhere. Consider, for example, the Poirot or Flashman stories, or for a series with more concrete links between them instead of merely sharing a character or two, Wilbur Smith's sequence of books set in ancient Egypt, or older sci-fi such as Asimov's Foundation series.


Stone Spring (Gollancz S.F.)
Stone Spring (Gollancz S.F.)
by Stephen Baxter
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fine story, but logistically implausible, 3 Sep 2011
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I expected to hate this book. It's set in the Mesolithic, in an age when the North Sea was still mostly land, and tells an alternate history of how a tribe of primitives kept the sea back by building dykes. This is, of course, absurd. They lacked the productive surplus to support the workforce this would have needed. Baxter tries to address this by having them trade with other tribes for labour, but still fails to address the question of how to feed the work force. No matter where or when your story is, you can't ignore basic logistics and still have a world sufficiently realistic that a reader can immerse himself in the story.

And that's not the only utterly absurd piece of Baxter's world. The tribe of tree-top dwellers are also ridiculous.

But never mind that. Baxter salvages from his irreparably flawed world a decent story of inter-personal conflicts, intrigue and jealousy. Why only three stars? It's daft, and I don't think he can sustain it over the two sequels that are supposedly on the way.


A Storm of Swords (Song of Ice and Fire)
A Storm of Swords (Song of Ice and Fire)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beginning to wear a bit thin, 3 Sep 2011
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So, on to book three in the series, and as expected the quality is just a little bit less than the book before. It's still good, still enjoyable, but it's beginning to look a bit worn around the edges. Like the previous volume, the sheer number of people and factions gets confusing, and the amount of magic in the story is slowly increasing. Magic is a crutch for bad fantasy writers and for good writers who've run out of ideas, it's just Treknobabble dressed in bearskins. The first book didn't really have any of it at all, but in this one there's quite a bit. It's still stuck lurking on the edges, and not having any significant impact, but more importantly, it's not having any impact at all that couldn't have been achieved without. Therefore it only detracts from the book.


A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)
A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.63

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as its predecessor - as if that were possible, 2 Aug 2011
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The first volume in this series, A Game Of Thrones, was always going to be a tough act to follow, and as is just about always the way with sequels, this doesn't quite get there. The problem is mostly because there are just so many factions that it's hard to keep track of who's in which and who's betraying who. Most confusion is cleared up fairly quickly though, and I can still recommend this book whole-heartedly, with the proviso that it won't make much sense unless you've already read the previous volume.


Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers
Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers
by Sir Mortimer Wheeler
Edition: Paperback

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A terrible disappointment, 1 Aug 2011
Sir Mortimer, or, to give him his full name and titles, Brigadier Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler CH, CIE, MC, FBA, FSA, was clearly a splendid chap. He wore a handlebar moustache and smoked a pipe and was, back in the 1950s when this book was published, something of an archaeological celebrity, much like that hairy bloke with the funny accent off of Time Team. He published this through Penguin's Pelican imprint in 1954.

It is, unfortunately, very much a product of its time, when communication of scientific knowledge to the masses was at best in its infancy, and not seen as being particularly important by much of academia. The very fact that he even wrote this book makes Wheeler stand out from his contemporaries, but sadly while he may have had the desire to write for a mass audience, the literary tools that are so well used these days by the likes of Simon Singh had not yet been invented.

The subtitle is "a new and concise survey of Roman adventuring beyond the political frontiers of the Roman world". Well, that's partly true. It is (or rather, at the time of publication, it was) new, including work done just two or three years earlier. And it's concise, at 214 small pages. Unfortunately we learn precious little about Roman adventuring. It consists in large part of dull and dry detailed descriptions of a few scraps found in northern Europe, much of it terribly repetitive, and the author himself tells us that the provenance of much of it is unclear, and so there's virtually nothing to be learned of Roman adventuring from it. In fact, in the whole book there are only two "adventures" even mentioned, both from classical written sources and not from archaeology: one being a "knight" (ie an eques) who travelled to the Baltic to trade for amber, and the other being a servant of one Annius Plocamus, a Red Sea tax collector, whose ship was blown off-course by a gale and eventually wrecked in modern Sri Lanka. Both are briefly mentioned by the elder Pliny - but only briefly, so again, no adventuring.

Outside Europe, we learn more in 20 pages about Roman dalliances in the Sahara than we did about anything in the hundred plus dedicated to Europe, but the existence of a mausoleum or two doesn't really tell us much about adventuring, and the best Wheeler can do is to hypothesise that a few Romans may have lived with local Tuaregs either as traders or diplomats - and hypothesise only, nothing more. East Africa gets even shorter shrift, just three pages, despite Axum being well-known to the Romans. Finally, there are about 60 pages on India and its environs. This is by far the best part of the book, as it is at least more coherent, embedded as it was in a milieu of organised states and literature, and also where Wheeler himself did much of his own work. It still tells us nothing of Roman adventuring though, only that substantial trade existed between southern India and Rome - but again, we know this from Pliny, who bewailed the haemmorrhaging of gold from Rome to the east (one hundred million sesterces a year - equivalent in modern British terms to between 8 and 14 billion pounds) to pay for luxuries like pepper and silk, and from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

I can't recommend this book. Even though, being published by Penguin, it is intended for a lay audience, it is manifestly unsuitable.


Grunts
Grunts
by Mary Gentle
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An antidote to sub-Tolkien sword n sorcery clones? No, 1 Aug 2011
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This review is from: Grunts (Mass Market Paperback)
Sword n' Sorcery fantasy is a bit tedious. It's pretty much all derived directly from Tolkien with little originality, and you always know that the good guys are going to win. "Grunts" is occasionally touted as being an antidote to that.

It's not a very good antidote though. It's still derived entirely from Tolkien - admittedly as a deliberate pastiche - and still not particularly imaginative. I could put up with that, if only it was funny. It isn't. Oh sure, there's a few jokes, but a few jokes don't make good comedy. I could even put up with that, but there's one more terrible problem. I don't know whether it's bad writing, bad editing, or bad printing, but a few times the action would leap completely unexpectedly and with no reason from one place and time to another, leaving stuff incomplete and seemingly dropping us into the middle of a scene.

That took something that could have been a perfectly decent piece of mindless entertainment and made it just too annoying.

Now, on the off-chance that it was just a load of printing errors, you should note that the book I'm linking to is a different printing of the one I read. Same edition, same ISBN, but with a different cover and, if it really was a printing error, maybe that's fixed. Caveat emptor!


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