Saturday, 10 February 2018

Reading list - 2017

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

Award-winning and set in a historical period that fascinates me - surely a winner? Humm, not sure.

It's certainly well-researched and really brings the period to life (as well as providing lots of ideas for RPG scenarios) but it's slow going in several places and the central character (and narrator) of Thomas Cromwell doesn't really ring true. Here's a man who rose from no where - the run-away son of a blacksmith / brewer - to the highest offices in the land, talented, persuasive, depended upon by Cardinal Wolsey, surviving his fall to find favour with the king. But as a narrator he's distant and slightly peevish, so you never quite find yourself drawn into the story.

Well worth a read but to me it didn't really live up to its reputation.

I Let You Go - Clare Mackintosh

A recommendation from my wife - "a page-turning read ... like Gone Girl" she said. Like Gone Girl but far grimmer might be a better tag line. While Gone Girl has a slight otherworldly element to it this is very much set in the real world, with characters you want to sympathise with while not quite being sure how much sympathy they merit. It makes good use of the narrator's viewpoint and slight misdirection and is brilliantly written - very hard to put down while at some points you don't really want to turn the next page. The only criticism I'd level is that the final reveal is a bit too tidy, of the sort that challenges your suspension of disbelief. Otherwise a great book - just make sure your diary is clear before you pick it up.

Wolf Riders - David Pringle (ed)

Seeing as I'm working through the Orfeo trilogy at the moment I thought I'd try one of the Warhammer anthologies while I was between books. I'd read Wolf Riders when it was published in 1989 and had no particular memory of it, now I can see why. There are some good stories in here - Brian Craig's The Way of the Witchfinder is the stand-out, and as the final story it leaves you feeling the collection's a better read than it really is.

Four of the eight tales are average at best, and (perhaps not coincidentally) all end up being of the "character backstory" type. One of these - Ralph T. Castle's Cry of the Beast - might have been quite decent if it'd been left to show the Old World being a big and complex place but the ending, with the protagonist making his way out into the world, leaves it feeling cliched.

Jack Yeovil's No Gold in the Grey Mountains I enjoyed, as I did Craig's other contribution of The Phantom of Yremy, and the title story by William King is decent enough and introduces Felix and Gotrek nicely. But overall I'll be glad to get onto my next book.

Crowbone - Robert Low

Best avoided.

The good Oathsworn novels are unpleasant in places - high on brutality and hardship (Low's depictions of slogging through the cold are particularly chilling), but worth the read for the story and because you want the characters to win through. The lead character in this novel is, unsurprisingly, Crowbone, who's pretty irredeemable, so that essential ingredient is lost.

One thing that's worth a mention is the arc through the Oathsworn novels of Orm's crew from hungry wolves to satiated wolves (if still a long way from being sheep) and there's still an interesting aspect of that story to be had here, but unfortunately not worthwhile enough to salvage things.

The Reluctant Swordsman - Dave Duncan

I remember picking this up in the library many years ago but I'm honestly not sure if I read it - if not I was missing out. On the one hand it's a fairly typical portal fantasy but I found it impossible to put down. Duncan does a brilliant job of creating dilemmas for his protagonist to solve or fall foul of, at turns due to his ignorance of the world, his modern prejudices or fresh perspective, and while you can see the puppetmaster at work it's never offputting. The twist at the end is particularly well done, probably the most surprised I've been by a book in a while.

The world is also quite compelling, perhaps most easily described as Tékumel-lite, with its stratified and tradition-bound society and casual approach to capital punishment. There are a few pieces of what we know so far that I'm finding slightly challenge my suspension of disbelief, but I'm willing to give this the benefit of the doubt for now and see where Duncan goes with it. That said, while I will probably work my way through the series I'm not that keen to move on to book two just yet, and not just because of the compulsive nature of book one and its impact on real life. Despite being hard to put down it was a strangely unsatisfying, slightly insubstantial read, more comfort food than nourishing meal.

Citizen Soldiers - Stephen E. Ambrose

Less grim than Stalingrad.

I enjoyed reading Band of Brothers and picked up this book hoping for a broader version of the same, I was wrong but not disappointed. Citizen Soldiers is a strange mix of the big picture of the post-D-Day battle for western Europe and recounting of specific events from individual soldiers' memoirs. The style jars slightly at first but after a while starts to gel, and so gives a picture of both the generals' objectives and the experience of the fighting men. The latter brings home both the hardships of day-to-day existence, especially in the depths of winter, and the chaotic, random nature of battle.

The overwhelming impression is one of waste and loss - both for individual senseless attacks ordered by out-of-touch senior officers, such as the offensive through the Hürtgen forest, and the colossal cost of the whole thing in lives and material.

My wargamer side gained some good insights, although modern wargames generally aren't my cup of tea being a bit too close to home. If I do break that aversion, or more likely if I venture into sci-fi stuff, then there are some lessons especially on streetfighting that I'll want to apply: the last place you want to be is on the street; tanks are a good way of making doors in walls where there are none currently (and never enter a house via the original doors); and there's no such thing as "too close to use artillery". In fact the casual and inventive use of high explosives (how do you make a foxhole in frozen ground?) gives a certain dark humour to quite a few of the recollections.

Equal of the Sun - Anita Amirrezvani

Great story, very average novel.

To start with the plus points, this is an absorbing story of how those in priviliged but powerless positions - princesses, concubines, eunuchs - endeavour to exercise power and of how the capable but resented daughter of a great sultan attempts to defend his legacy. You have regicide, palace intrigue and mechanations, the use of structures and tradition to try to bind those in power.

The downside is in the telling, which is  mostly good enough but sometimes distractingly clunky. There are passages where you feel the editor said "here are some adjectives, go back and make it more sumptuous", and times where the narrator - in life-threatening situations - is having to tell you how scared he is since it's not seeming that way.

The ending, surprising and somewhat haunting, goes quite a long way to redeeming the novel but I still wouldn't put it into the "would recommend" pile.

Bring up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

More Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. Still a slow read and a narrator that doesn't quite have the right voice, but worth a read. The brilliance of the book is that, although you know how it will turn out, the characters and the mechanations remain convincing - they don't know what's coming, or why behaving as they are may not be so clever. And full of period detail that's great if you're fond of WFRP.

The other interesting thing is the tempo - normal, normal, normal, Bam! Real life doesn't pace itself as a novelist would and it's refreshing when novels don't either.

Storm Warriors - Brian Craig

A book of two halves. This is the third in the Orfeo trilogy and if I hadn't mostly enjoyed the first two I might well have given up on it. The first half spends a lot of time setting up the main characters and its Albion just isn't my Albion, in fact apart from the odd bit of name dropping it hardly feels like it's set in the Old World at all. In the second half the plot gets going nicely and draws you along, still not quite Warhammer but a good read none the less.

One plus point, which it shares with the whole trilogy, is it gives some additional texture to various of the dark powers (Slaanesh in this case), showing something beyond the rather one-dimensional view portrayed in a lot of the source material, and giving them a more convincingly corrupting aspect in the process.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - J.K Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany

I enjoyed the Harry Potter novels when I read them so time ago, and now my children are working their way through them it was good to see the Cursed Child come out in paperback. I found it slightly disappointing - above average but not good, it sort of reads like high-quality fan fiction rather than being on a par with the originals.

On the plus side it introduces some interesting characters as the next generation at Hogwarts, avoiding the obvious and with a decent underlying plot. It's nice that it sort of peers at one of the more interesting and less used aspects of the wizarding universe - only rarely touched on in the originals - that the parents of pretty much everyone anyone knows, and their parents, etc. all went to the same school. The downside is in the characterisation of the adults who were children in the originals is rather unconvincing, with the children themselves being rather more believable.

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

Autumn was a difficult this year and I needed a nice warm soup of a book - Guards! Guards! is exactly that. I've read it before at least a couple of times so the overall plot was no great surprise although the twist at the end still got me. Pratchett's warmth for his characters combines nicely with his jaundiced view of our world via the lens of Ankh Morpork to deliver gentle satire and the characters of Carrot and Vimes remain favourites.

Thank you Terry!

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

I'm trying to have a bit more variety in my reading so something modern / sci-fi and in a less familiar setting (albeit by a British author) ticked the boxes. It's cleverly told, woven together from the points of view of some very different people all with their own connections to the central event / narrative. The blurb and quite a lot of the plot are a bit of a red herring which is sad in a way as there are some good stories to be had in those directions, but the story itself doesn't disappoint - the plausible near-future technology is worthwhile in its own right but the lens of an unfamiliar culture somehow makes the whole more thought-provoking.

Those thoughts were for me quite negative though - I'm not sure whether it's a sub-text or just my reading but the feeling I came away with was of the clash between technological advance and humanity's wellbeing.

Wolfsangel - M.D Lachlan

Good in parts. For mundane / historical vikings I'd recommend Robert Low's work far above Wolfsangel, but this book does have its strengths. On a minor note the depiction of the Whale People - the Sami people I assume - as suitably unknown and different is a refreshing contrast to the outlook of Low's cosmopolitan Orm, but the stand-out aspect is the portrayal of the witches. Inhuman and chilling, they take tribute from the local poplace as well as acting as oracles to the powerful, and would remain convincing even in a magic-free setting. The villager folk-magic and knowledge-seeking via ordeal are also persuasive - is the key that the characters expect this to work, or is there actual magic at play here?

The downsides are in the plotting and narration which are sometimes jarring. Sometimes you're not convinced that the characters are acting within their nature so much as advancing the plot, sudden changes of point of view can be disorientating and at times one narrator seems to know the thoughts and motivations of another, making for some difficult reading.

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

Pretty good, with a definite hint of Heinlein (which is no bad thing), but I'm not sure how many of the other eight books set in the same universe I want to bother with which is not the strongest recommendation ever.

On the plus side it's fast-moving military space opera which is hard to put down, with the protagonist's backstory and ongoing story adding a human element which draws you in. The main downsides are the universe-building and some of the tone, although probably a large part of my trouble with the former is in my head.

The problem here is the standard challenge of inter-species sci-fi warfare: the cosmic unlikeliness of the two sides being close enough in technology level for it to actually be a contest. If anything this is emphasised rather than explained in the text by two of the opposing species - the Rraey and the Consu. The Rraey are advanced but conservative, and having been on a par with humanity technology-wise when the two species first met are now falling behind. Conversely the Consu are very advanced but enjoy warfare as a ritual, hence when they meet any other species in battle it just so happens that the weapons and technology they use provide a more or less even match. To me this undermines rather than supports the rest of the book.

On the tone front, according to one review I've seen this series is actually a comedy - this may be the case but other than one battle this comes across as a slightly jarring tone than actual humour which dampened my enjoyment a little.

I probably will read the follow-up - The Ghost Brigades - at some point, but not urgently.

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