Sunday, 5 January 2014

Reading list - 2013 (part two)

It's noticable that I've read significantly less books in the second half of the year compared to the first. Despite the boost of the summer holiday I'm doing more figure painting or less commuting than before.

The Three Evangelists - Fred Vargas
Another from my wife's recommendation list, and well worth a read. Detective stories aren't really my thing, I think I'm far too trusting and take characters as presented rather than trying to work out whodunit. I had no idea who the baddy was, but did enjoy the characterisation of the main protagonists - academic historians each with a different speciality who think their fellow historians are misguided at best if not actually dangerous. Sounds like some geeks I know!

The Legend of Deathwalker - David Gemmell
I spent a good part of the book wondering whether I'd read it before, eventually deciding that I hadn't. Suffice to say that it follows Gemmell's tried and trusted formula however it's written as well as ever and still manages to get you emotionally involved with the characters despite being a bit heavy-handed in places.

I especially continue to enjoy his portrayal of the Nadir - I've no idea to what extent they're intended to reflect the culture of Ghengis Khan's raiders or were invented from whole cloth, but I imagine that to your average fantasy literature fan they're more real than the real thing. I also find them useful in considering how orcish culture might actually function in the Warhammer world.

Things to do one day - re-read all the Drenai books in chrological order.

Lord of Emperors - Guy Gavriel Kay
This had everything I was looking for from the books on my reading list - a good story and it had me reaching for the history books afterwards.

The characters and the city of Sarantium are brilliantly brought to life, and while I have my frequent quibble that the ending doesn't really reward the characters for the journey they've taken us on they do fare about as well as they could hope for after becoming involved with the political elite of the city.

On the RPG setting side of things it's surprising (at least to this ignorant reader) how sophisticated the ancients were on all sorts of levels - medical, engineering and social to pick just three. We're vaguely aware of this, if only from "what have the Romans ever done for us?" but somehow experiencing it in a novel paints a deeper (if narrower) picture than a text book can.

The default pseudo-Medieval setting of your typical RPG does give a convenient shorthand for any group of gamers to congregate around, but books like this show how we're often limiting ourselves as well.

Noble House - James Clavell
An abrupt change of era to this novel set in 1960s Hong Kong. A good read, although you always suspect that the lead character's plot armour is too thick for the ending to be particularly surprising. Also quite interesting in illustrating just how much the world has changed in the last 50 years - sexual equality for example might not be quite there yet, but it's come a long way.

The Raven in the Foregate - Ellis Peters
Ellis Peters delivers what I was hoping for from The Seventh Trumpet, but then this was a nice safe pick from the bookshelf to occupy a train journey or two. Cadfael's a bit too comfortable and the era of King Stephen and Empress Maud a bit too familiar to offer much new from an RPG setting perspective, however as always there's the odd insight to be found.

On the one hand law and civil society is surprisingly strong (although this presumably varies from location to location, with the sheriff of Shrewbury being more upright than his more famous Nottingham counterpart), on the other a time of civil war is clearly the richest in terms of gaming opportunities and the odd bit of murder hobo activity. Also in an era when relatively few have horses to ride, and may not have one conveniently parked, simply running (or walking) away is often a good bet.

Criminal - Karin Slaughter
A thriller rather than a detective novel, so more my sort of thing. Brilliantly weaves between 1970s Atlanta and the present day, with a significant focus on the sexual politics of the earlier time. Things had moved on slightly from '60s Hong Kong, but not actually very far...

The Hundred-year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson
This book came out as one of my wife's book club's favourite reads of the year, unfortunately I was right in suspecting it wouldn't really be my thing. The novel's tone is just too whimsical for me, especially seeing that Allan really does get away with (sort of) murder. Allan himself is also a bit of a contradiction - on the one hand the world would be a better place if more were as even-handed has him, however it's hard to accept that anyone could be that uninterested in how the world around him works.

A real strength of the story though is how it brings home how poorly we value older people in the western world. No one is going to be quite as remarkable as Allan, but anyone of that age is going to have a lot to offer and isn't merely an inconvenient independent person out to frustrate the old persons' home director.

House of Silk - Anthony Horowitz
Another strong recommendation from my wife's book club. A detective novel though, so had me mostly lost, although I did manage to pick up on the most obviously flagged of the villains... Although I've not read any Sherlock Holmes in a long time I think it's fair to say that the prose (if not the plot) could have been written by Conan Doyle himself.

The main plot is very modern which is good in its way, but distinctly not of a piece with the original novels. I was left hoping Horowitz will revisit the characters in future (which has to be taken as an endorsement of what he's achieved with this novel), but that when he does he mixes some Victorian plots in with the more modern ones.

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