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R. B. Abbott "Richard Abbott" (London, England)

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The Songs Of Chaos (The First Ones Book 1)
The Songs Of Chaos (The First Ones Book 1)
Price: £1.81

4.0 out of 5 stars An imaginative concept linking two worlds, 21 Sep 2014
The Songs of Chaos is a science fiction book which straddles two worlds – “The First World” on the one hand – contemporary America – and “The Second World” on the other. This second world is technologically considerably behind our own, but has retained a human capacity for directly accessing forces in the realm of nuclear or sub-nuclear physics. At one stage, very long ago, traffic between the worlds was relatively common through “portals“, but now it is essentially unknown on our side and extremely rare on the other.

The Second World is peopled by a considerable range of human subspecies, as though the early days here when we shared the planet with Neanderthals and other hominids had persisted through into historical times. These different subspecies live together in an uneasy truce, regularly punctuated by skirmishes and small scale raids. The story largely follows two groups from our world who cross over into the other, intersecting with various individuals on that side. For a British reader, the casual references into American culture are sometimes obscure, and I soon felt that The Second World was a more familiar place than the First.

The basic framework is imaginative, and by and large interactions between inhabitants of the two worlds make sense as the crossover situations gradually become clear to each of them. Enough happens in this book to make it a story in its own right. However, it is the first novel in a series, so appropriately (though frustratingly) there are plenty of loose ends and glimpses into deeper and mostly darker matters. I was not wholly convinced by some of the revelations near the end of this book, but they have certainly set up problems for the next one to address.

A disappointment with the book is the considerable number of proofreading errors still remaining, chiefly substitution of one word for another (flash instead of flesh, for example), or the common misuse of apostrophes. I can easily overlook a few of these, but the frequency was quite obtrusive. A thorough proof read or external edit would have caught almost all of these.

A few world-building issues stood out as odd to me. We are told early on in the book that time flows faster on this side than the other. However, the pattern seemed erratic, and I felt that it varied according to the needs of the plot rather than being consistent. Similarly, one of the subspecies in The Second World seems to know a great deal about contemporary First World politics, which seemed odd considering the portals were not actively used any more (as well as the time rate variation). Morgan also jumps viewpoint radically from time to time, in order to supply background information, and this feels slightly dislocating.

All in all a four star book for the imaginative concept. Some readers will not mind the production problems, but others will find them a barrier. The book is worth looking into by science fiction enthusiasts for an unusual setting and plot that avoids futuristic gadgetry.

Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for an early version of this book. This review applies to the published version. I received a free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

City of Dreams
City of Dreams
Price: £2.45

4.0 out of 5 stars Paris around the time of the Franco-Prussian war, 3 Sep 2014
This review is from: City of Dreams (Kindle Edition)
City of Dreams follows Anna, a Russian who moves to Paris on the verge of the 1865 Franco-Prussian war. Early in the story she falls from riches to rags, in a way reminiscent of Fantine from Les Miserables, though Anna’s starting point is higher and her decline not so disastrous. After a brief period in comparative poverty, Anna finds a comfortable career as mistress to a selection of wealthy men. The war ushers in a troubled period for the city and occupants.

The recounting of the history was more compelling than the personal drama. Harriet comments that the Franco-Prussian war is somewhat overlooked, I certainly knew little about it, and the only familiar event was the eating of zoo animals during the siege. The description of the progress of the war was illuminating.

The author invites us to draw parallels between Anna and émigré brides of today, with all the potential for social dislocation and dismissal. She also enables us to share an outsider’s view of France. However, I found it difficult to engage with Anna, and the city at large was the more vivid character.

Readers looking for nineteenth-century stories away from the obvious Napoleonic or British Empire settings might enjoy City of Dreams. It is, however, hard to classify. Although touching on battles, it is not a war book. There are sexual elements, but it is not a romance. It is, I think, best read as a reflection of Paris herself.

Technically the book was well turned out; proofreading was thorough. A few chapters ended with a couple of lines slipping onto a new page; a final edit would easily correct these.

After Flodden
After Flodden
Price: £3.47

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but a bit disjointed, 3 Sep 2014
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This review is from: After Flodden (Kindle Edition)
Unsurprisingly, After Flodden is set in the aftermath of the 1513 Battle of Flodden, which was a major disaster for the Scottish cause. The battle itself, and some other background information, is described in flashback scenes, with the main narrative occurring after the event during the closing months of 1513. Each chapter is marked with a date, and since they do not always happen in chronological order it can be important to take note of this.

Rosemary deals with the wider political stage only in passing, and for the most part we follow particular individuals as they try to come to terms with the battle and its aftermath. These individuals each have personal reasons for wanting to know more, ranging from a desperate quest for a family member to the desire to find a scapegoat for the failure. The various threads interact with one another from an early stage of the book, so you are not left wondering how the pieces join up. However, some aspects of motive and personal history are deliberately withheld until near the end.

Rosemary uses dialect a great deal in the book, to distinguish both social class and geographic origin. In particular, characters from Scotland itself speak differently from those on the borders in what is now Northumberland. I am very fond of that county, and it was good to see it being explored in this way. The most likeable characters, and the ones treated most sympathetically, are precisely those from along this turbulent strip of constantly debated land. I cannot say how accurate the dialect is, but it certainly works to help place the characters.

However, I found the story as a whole slightly perplexing. The “whodunit” thread trying to account for the military disaster did not sit very comfortably, to my eyes, with the exploration of personal loyalty and love, and it felt as though too much importance was being put on the shoulders of one rather insignificant family. The fact that the chapters following the main events (ie not the flashback moments) were almost, but not quite, in temporal order did not help here.

A retreat into catatonia is used quite often in the book to basically get a character out of the way. In some cases it is a consequence of battle trauma, in others there is a hereditary factor, and in others it seems to be simply a response to the failure of plans and intentions. I found this repeated refrain, mixed with the diversity of causes, to be rather frustrating. Perhaps Rosemary was trying to mirror something of the condition of Scotland in this, where national trauma and the failure of grand schemes backfired into a turmoil of internal violence and insanity. Since she does not foreground the national dimensions of life, it is hard to tell.

For me, another 4* book. The place and time of After Flodden were interesting, and the use of dialect added considerably to the characters, but I found the story itself a little disjointed. I would have liked some exploration of the national narratives as well as personal. After all, it would be less than 100 years from this point of violent incompatibility between England and Scotland, up until the act of union in which a joint ruler was acknowledged. It is very hard from within the book to see how this would be at all feasible.

Spacehounds of IPC
Spacehounds of IPC
Price: £2.48

4.0 out of 5 stars Dated but still has fast-paced excitement, 28 Aug 2014
Having recently enjoyed Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds I thought I would revisit Spacehounds of IPC and Triplanetary as examples of the next science fiction developmental stage on. They are separate books, not part of Smith’s two long Skylark and Lensman series, and although not strictly linked, they do share a common vision of Earth’s future. Note that Triplanetary is the 1934 serialised novel, not the 1948 novel of the same title which opens the Lensman series.

In many ways the tales have dated terribly – the gender divide is rather extreme in these earlier books of Smith’s. Women can be intelligent, and have aspirations to be part of the overall solution, but at their best they only want to be loyal supporters rather than leaders. In his later writing this shifted a little, and capable women do start to make their presence felt more – though still in subordinate rather than true leadership positions. Smith also clearly felt strongly that mental ability and physical perfection went hand in hand, and so his heroes and heroines are staggeringly beautiful as well as supremely smart. Along with this, the dialogue between men and women is stilted, and is heavily laced with rather sickly compliments. In short, male-female relationships feel very artificial.

The ruling Earth population is essentially made up of white Americans. Perhaps it is revealing that he chooses the masculine Tellus for Earth rather than the feminine Terra (again, this changed in later writing). Politics is quite naive – the style of rule, a heavily militarised but benevolent government, is seen as self-evidently right, and is only opposed by criminals or the hopelessly selfish. There is no credible opposition party. Of course, Smith is not alone in this and many modern writers also cannot conceive of well-founded political opposition outside simple hostility.

Where Smith is wildly inclusive is with aliens – unlike say Asimov, whose career overlapped Smith’s, he has no qualms about having radically nonhuman aliens in positions of authority, and he takes great delight in conjecturing many kinds of life forms in addition to humanoid ones. Some are no longer so persuasive in the light of scientific progress, but the variety is refreshing.

Smith is hugely profligate of human and alien life, with whole cities often destroyed along with their occupants as a casual byproduct of battles between adversary spaceships. This is not praised or glorified, but seen as an inevitable consequence of technological war, easily forgotten when the peace treaty is drawn up. I suspect this is a motif built on his observations of the First World War, expanded many times over to accommodate new weaponry. By coincidence I saw the HG Wells film Things to Come (based on his story of similar name) a few days ago and this shares many common features.

Where the books still shine is in the fast pace of their plots. They always remind me of old western films migrated up into space. Idealised heroes and villains utter pithy stereotyped lines in improbable settings – but they do so with great energy and excitement, and it is easy to get caught up in the swing of the tales and emerge at the far end slightly breathless.

Well worth reading by those interested in tracing the development of science fiction through the years, or else anyone who wants a space-based yarn without needing believable dialogue, and who is not troubled by recent scientific findings. Since I have to give a star rating here, 4* for the fun value.

The Martian
The Martian
Price: £3.42

4.0 out of 5 stars A geeky triumph, 28 Aug 2014
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This review is from: The Martian (Kindle Edition)
I was recommended The Martian by a friend a little while ago, and finished it as a holiday book. A lot of readers find it almost impossible to put down: this was not quite my experience, though I have enjoyed reading it a great deal.

The basic setting is that one member (Mark Watney) of a near-future manned Martian expedition is accidentally left on the planet when the crew have to abruptly abandon the mission. The story then follows Mark’s struggle for survival until the point where a rescue becomes possible. There is a long succession of crises that have to be faced and overcome by a mixture of hard work and inventiveness. Some of the time Mark is able to validate his plans with expert advice from NASA, but at other times he is purely on his own.

The science and engineering aspects have been exceptionally well thought through, so far as I can tell. Mark is able to make creative and credible use of the materials at his disposal, which themselves are plausible for his original mission. To a very large extent the repeated crises drive the plot, and other issues such as character are largely in the background. We do get to learn quite a lot about Mark’s current frame of mind, but much less about his back story, or indeed that of any of the other peripheral characters. It is basically a “geek triumphs over adversity” story, and a splendid example of this.

To a degree the story tails off towards the end. This is largely because the presenting issues are so large that the outcome is either total success or total failure (and hence death). The stakes keep growing, and the possibilities for successfully finding a way out get narrower.

For me, this was a 4* book. It was very well planned out and executed, and a highly believable near-future scenario. Personally I prefer books with more character interaction, which by definition is not going to happen here. But many people will appreciate The Martian for its technical detail and long series of survival challenges.

A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future
A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future
Price: £1.22

4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting ancestor of modern science fiction, 5 Aug 2014
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A Journey in Other Worlds is a science fiction book published in 1894 and available these days in Kindle format, and describes a space journey taking place in the year 2000. I came across it through a Google+ post by a friend.

It is definitely of the old science fiction school in which the appeal of the book was reckoned to be in the lavish detail supplied of future inventions and society. I realised that EE “Doc” Smith (writing from around 1920 onwards) was following in the same pattern. They share the same tendency for male protagonists, supported by supremely beautiful and talented women who remain faithfully at home while their men go out and face danger. They also both posit a world where white American society (and to a lesser degree English culture) have dominated the world and other races and ethnicities have been absorbed or marginalised.

Astor, an extremely rich man who died on the Titanic, was himself something of an inventor, and clearly took great delight in long descriptions of the engineering feats of the future. One of the spaceship’s crew of three is on a well-earned rest after co-ordinating a global project to straighten the earth’s axis so that it is perpendicular to the orbital plane, in order to remove seasonal extremes. This feat is described in considerable length for those who want to put it into practice today – though in fact it would be as out of reach today as it was in Astor’s day.

Modern readers will probably be impatient with what comes over as great naivety about the role of science (an unmitigated boon and triumph of human ingenuity) and of politics (the right way to run the world is so abundantly obvious that there is no real opposition of any kind). And many modern readers, both religious and otherwise, will find difficulties with his methodology for fusing scientific and biblical statements. However, his ability to imaginatively project the knowledge of his time, and his recognition of the limits of knowledge, are both striking and appealing.

The book is divided into three parts: an initial review of life on planet earth, followed by extended descriptions of the explorers’ visits to Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter is basically an extended big game hunt, together with musings on the ease with which parts of Jupiter could be appropriated for colonisation from earth. Not sharing the 19th century desire to hunt anything large enough to be shot at, I did not find this especially moving. The characters come over as unconsciously arrogant and parochial.

The Saturn trip, however, brings out a very different side to the crew. Anxieties and worries surface in them, along with existential fears that their lives are not, after all, up to the quality that they had imagined for themselves. As a result, this section of the book was much more engaging for me.

I found A Journey in Other Worlds to be an interesting book – significantly more modern in outlook than parts of Jules Verne, and with a clear line of descent through Smith to more recent writers. Not everybody will like the book, either for its writing style or the ideas expressed in it, but I am glad to have read it. It seems slightly churlish to rate a book of this kind, but for consistency with other books I would give four stars.

A CHAMPION'S DUTY (The Guinevere Trilogy Book 2)
A CHAMPION'S DUTY (The Guinevere Trilogy Book 2)
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An absorbing retelling of the Arthurian stories, 1 Aug 2014
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A Champion’s Duty, by Lavinia Collins, is the middle section of a trilogy following the Arthurian story cycle, as seen through the eyes of Guinevere. I have not yet read the first book – I downloaded this instalment as a promotional copy from Amazon – and in part was curious as to how far the book made sense on its own.

On this count I am very happy to say that it made perfect sense – of course there were places where previous events were referenced, but never in a way that left you lost. As befits the middle of a trilogy, the story ends with the central characters stranded in a seemingly desperate situation.

Lavinia has followed the rather ambiguous information in her source materials in order to place the story. Clear late Medieval signals such as plate armour and Saracen champions sit in a much older context in which England – and Europe – was still split into a myriad tiny principalities, and Rome was a powerful force within living memory. Superior kings such as Arthur attract lesser local lords into their retinue, knowing that if their might or reputation slips, their following will vanish again, or turn hostile. Real places and events live alongside Christian and pre-Christian symbolic ones. The story is not quite historical fiction, not quite fantasy, but something in between.

The main focus of this book is the conflicted feelings that Guinevere has for both Arthur and Lancelot. A queen’s life in this martial society was both lonely and dangerous, but Lavinia compellingly portrays Guinevere as driven by overwhelming attraction for both men. She is neither simply looking for a bored-housewife style diversion nor passively exploited by those around her. Guinevere’s perspective, as an independently minded, passionate and determined woman in a world governed by warlike men, provides a refreshing view on the expected world of battles and jousts.

The book was let down by some careless editing and proofreading, including some apparently random nonsense sequences of letters which had slipped through the editorial net. This was particularly surprising given the overall quality of the imagination and characterisation.

The other main difficulty – which Lavinia grapples with throughout the book – is how to retell a story which has so many well known episodes in it. She successfully threads a way between a straight historicised version on the one hand, and magical mysticism on the other, but it is a hard task that she has set herself.

On balance for me this was another 4* book. I am very glad to have taken advantage of the promotion, and am curious to see how Lavinia tackles the story’s end, but will have a pause before purchasing #3 to let this one sink in a little more.

Augustus: A Novel
Augustus: A Novel
Price: £4.78

4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but hard to sympathise with the characters, 17 July 2014
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This review is from: Augustus: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
Augustus, by John Williams, was another book club choice: I’m not sure that I would have picked it out myself. I have come away with mixed feelings. It is very obviously a carefully written book, intricately written entirely in epistolary form. Strictly, not all sections are letters, as we have diary entries, military orders, official records and such like as well. However, every part has a sense of formally constructed distance – we are not experiencing things as they happen, but rather we are shown a highly selected series of personal reflections on events.

Although the progress of recounted events proceeds almost entirely in linear order, the time sequence of the reflections themselves is extremely nonlinear. A letter written just hours after a key moment is followed by a memoir extract from decades later. Likewise, the perspectives offered by the writers range from enthusiastic through manipulative to hostile. Most of the entries are acutely conscious of the political games being played, and are seeking to influence others one way or another. There is a constant sense that nobody’s words can really be trusted.

This was certainly an interesting ploy, but one which for me did not quite work. The cast of involved people was very large, and their writing styles not sufficiently diverse for me to pick them out easily. John identifies each sender and recipient in a short header, as well as the date of the item, but I found it all too easy to forget after a couple of page turns, and on a Kindle it was not easy to flick back to the header to remind myself. It is, I think, a book which actually needs to be read in a physical copy, with the consequent ease of keeping your thumb in a page and flipping to and fro. Indeed, I realised half-way through that you really need a large diagram beside you tracing who knows whom and the nature of each relationship (which changes through time).

I think the book might work for those who like political machinations. So far as I was concerned, I started to think quite early on that I wasn’t really interested in who was trying to deceive whom and why. By the time I thought of tracking relationships on paper, I had already ceased to really care who won and who lost, since their personal plots and preoccupations did not interest me (despite apparently deciding the fate of the Roman world).

There are three main divisions of the book. The first is male dominated and follows the saga to the defeat of Mark Anthony, at which point Rome is free of civil war. A second, with a higher proportion of female voices, takes us through to Augustus’s successful defeat of a last conspiracy against him. The final, much briefer, section is almost entirely a soliloquy of Augustus himself, close to death and reflecting on his life. Each stage sees him gain something and lose something, and the reader is left to decide if the gain was worth the loss.

Overall a modest four star book for me. I am glad to have read it, but cannot imagine reading it again. It is carefully constructed, but left me cold, partly because the overwhelming majority of the book concerns itself with an elite group of men that I cannot identify with. I think it was reasonably well researched, but am not enough of an expert on Roman history to know for sure, and there were a couple of places in the Egyptian section that I was very dubious about. If you like immersing yourself in Roman politics, you may well love this book – but make sure you read it with pen and paper beside you to keep track of the intricate web of personal interactions.

My Splendid Concubine
My Splendid Concubine
Price: £2.35

4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and unusual setting, slightly let down by flaws in execution, 6 July 2014
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My Splendid Concubine is set in 19th century China, as seen through the eyes of Robert Hart, an Irishman posted to Ningpo by the British civil service as an interpreter. The main part of the story covers about a decade, starting in 1854 as he arrives. A brief epilogue narrates his final departure in 1908.

Hart is a fascinating character, who became completely enamoured with Chinese culture and devoted his life to it. At the start this focused on tackling the immediate human horror of opium addiction, sponsored by European mercantile interests. As he proved his ability and loyalty, and rose in rank within the Chinese bureaucracy, he became able to tackle internal corruption and external threat on a much wider scale. For all this, he was trusted and honoured in quite extraordinary ways by the Imperial dynasty.

Lloyd’s story mixes Hart’s official and personal lives, and in particular the ways in which his love for a girl he took as concubine shaped, and ultimately conflicted with, his advancement. Hart begins the book driven by pure hedonism (constantly at war with his Methodist upbringing), but gradually converts this into a rather exhausting level of altruistic service. By the end of the story, his personal relationships have been pushed firmly to the back, and are driven by the same commitment to duty as his official tasks.

As other reviewers have commented, the early parts of the book are heavily laced with sexual detail. This is, I think, not gratuitous but mirrors Hart’s own preoccupation in his younger days. As he becomes more committed to his work, so his attention largely turns to political and cultural matters. The pursuit of pleasure is still present, but its target has broadened. His sex life dwindles as his political life expands.

Lloyd clearly has great passion for this place and time, as well as for Hart himself. He went to considerable trouble to track down documentary sources outside those which were readily available. Unfortunately, the actual production of the book shows less care than the research behind it. There are a surprising number of spelling and grammatical mistakes. Stylistically the occasional insertion of historical notes or comments on future actions tends to throw you out of the story, and I think these could have been incorporated more smoothly. He talks at some length about aspects of Chinese culture which were strikingly beautiful – in contrast to Hart’s first impression of smelly squalor – but the writing itself retains very little of this elegance. The few extracts from Chinese poems scarcely make up for the general lack of style.

The book has two major sections, which give the impression that they were written separately and then simply combined without continuity editing. Several episodes from Part 1 are carefully explained in Part 2, which might have been needed when released separately but make no sense now the book is a whole. Some Chinese phrases, such as “lose face“, are italicised early on to show they have a technical meaning, but are treated as normal text later. On the other hand, the epilogue, which deserves to be presented as a separate section, runs straight on from the previous chapter – this is confusing when first read. Some parts of dialogue carefully use period-specific terms or direct renderings of Chinese terms, but these are mixed with words like “okay” which jar somewhat.

In short, a four star book for me. Lloyd successfully invites the reader to appreciate this part of Chinese history, and the challenges of Hart’s own life. It is an unusual setting, and deals with a remarkable man. However, the execution of the book distracts from the story in various ways, and I could have wished that the prose style mirrored the content more closely.

Price: £2.05

4.0 out of 5 stars Great fun as a young person's introduction to New Kingdom Egypt, 23 Jun 2014
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The Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll, by Scott Peters, is a children’s book set in New Kingdom Egypt, in and around the southern city of Luxor. The pharaoh of the time is deliberately unspecified.

The plot is lively and straightforward; two children who run a market stall selling pottery, witness a neighbour being accused of theft, and take it upon themselves to investigate. In the process they find out that the accusation is false, but that there is a much deeper and more sinister plot behind it. Basically, in adult terms, they have stumbled into the path of a political move aiming at a palace coup – a problem which did indeed face certain pharaohs of that time.

This is a children’s book, so the writing is simple and direct, the characters’ motives are plain and easy to grasp, and the children are supremely competent at solving the problem (albeit at considerable risk to themselves and their family).

But the book is also a fantastic introduction to Egypt for children. Places, people and customs are well explained and engaging, so the book is highly educative as well as fun. Problems are solved by thought, perseverance, q the gathering of evidence, and negotiation with key people. There is no magic, and religion is dealt with as a normal part of everyday life. I would happily use this book as a way to bring something of the reality of ancient Egypt to life for a young audience.

Technically the Kindle copy I downloaded had a number of problems, in particular with incorrect representation of some characters such as apostrophes. This made the book hard to read in places, especially for a younger audience. I understand that this problem is being addressed and should be fixed before long.

Overall a four star book for me – although I prefer adult fiction, I can easily see myself reading The Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll with young people wanting to learn about Egypt.

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