Monday, January 28, 2008

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

If you were wondering what the delay in new posts was all about, this is the answer. The Lord of the Rings comes in at well over 1000 pages, and if you don't read the appendices that follow, then you're missing out. That's where half the story is!

It's difficult to review Lord of the Rings, it's a classic. Certainly one critique is that there are few female characters and they all have quite passive roles, whether they have power of fighting skills, or not.

People more familiar with the recent trilogy of films would be shocked at some of the differences. One of my reasons for reading this book again after a gap of at least 8 years, was that the films have stuck in my mind, and I could no longer remember clearly which parts of the story were unique to the films, and which to the book.

There are major differences, and I'll leave it at that. How terrible would a book review be if all it did was list how the book varied from the film interpretation? Let us not think of that dark reality.

I also won't pad this out with discussions of High Fantasy versus Swords & Sorcery, that can have it's own article, some other time.

Attention to detail is the watchword of this book. Tolkien takes every opportunity to describe the landscapes the travellers move through and the societies and peoples that live there. This is a book all about journeys, and not just physical journeys. Every member of the fellowship is on their own personal journey, and none come through unchanged.

It's a great sacrifice of time to read this book, but well worth the time spent.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Best Books of 2007

Seventy-Three. That’s the number of books I read in 2007. Not all for the first time, you understand. There were plenty of re-reads in there too. The number of new books read last year was more like fifty. I don’t think that makes a difference. Maybe if I only re-read books one year, all on the same subject, I might get worried I was stagnating. Not right now though.

There were plenty of new discoveries in 2007, as well as some favourites re-visited. Eleven books (old, new, borrowed) stood out from the pile though. They are listed below in order of their popularity on LibraryThing, mainly as I have no intention of trying to rank them. What would be the point?

1. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. The story of Fat Charlie Nancy, loser, and how he meets his brother, gets dumped by his fiancee, and finds out who his father really is. Plus an accountant gets his comeuppance. What more can you ask for?

2. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. I love the baroque cycle, of which this is the first book. A brilliant fictionalisation of a truly gripping phase of history.

3. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. A coming of age book unlike any you will have read before, I guarantee it.

4. Temeraire by Naomi Novik. Hornblower with dragons. Do I need to say more? This series was a welcome discovery for me in 2007, I read all four books. More please.

5. Spook Country by William Gibson. The phrase was often repeated that this was a science fiction book set in the present. What is was was a gripping spy story, set in a world too strange and yet too familiar.

6. Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett. This one is a personal favourite of mine, and I re-read it every couple of years. I tear up every time the Blackbury Pals come marching through the car park to collect the last of their number.

7. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I am an urban boy at heart, and so I love books where the city itself becomes a character. Un Lun Dun is a great story by Mieville, and also one I would recommend to ages 12+.

8. Space by Stephen Baxter. For some reason I am attracted to science fiction books that tackle the Fermi Paradox. This one is great, as humanity comes into contact with aliens who ask more questions than they answer.

9. The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden. I enjoyed the whole Caesar series, and this is the first. Great stuff.

10. The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History by Colin McEvedy. Don’t be put off by the title. This book is gripping. Each page is accompanied by a map, along with some commentary. The maps cover shifting borders, trade flows, and population growth and movements. Honestly, you won’t be able to put this one down.

11. The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton. When I read science fiction that’s not about the Fermi Paradox, it’s generally by this guy. A follow up of sorts to Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, this one is well worth your eyeball time.

If You're Wondering About the LibaryThing Link

Yes, I know the LibraryThing link on the side still has 'books read in 2007.' It gives 5 random books that I have read that year. Until I have read 6 books in 2008, that one will stay. You'll see a changeover probably by mid-Feb.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

This is the third book in the ‘Inhibitors Trilogy’. That’s not what it’s called, but that’s how I think of it. Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. They all form a series. While I get the impression that there have been other books by Reynolds in this setting and with these characters (well, some of them) I didn’t feel I was missing essential information.

Three stories thread throughout this book. I didn’t really see the connection between them, until I remembered to look at the date at the top of each chapter heading. That helps.

Humanity are fleeing the Inhibitors, those who know about them. Mostly they appear as rumour, ship to ship warnings of regions it is no longer safe for traders to enter. On another remote planet huge mobile cathedrals circle the moon of a gas giant. This gas giant is different. From time to time it vanishes, just for the blink of an eye. The reasons behind the vanishings are of no concern to the churches, as long as pilgrims continue to come. With the slow march of the Inhibitors many more pilgrims are flocking to the planet.

The three threads only merge in the latter half of the book, and here the action picks up considerably, with in-ship combat a particular highlight. Little tip; don’t invade sentient vessels and then start shooting the hull. They get tetchy. Hey, that might be handy advice one day.

I found the ending a little disappointing. Kind of like the ending to The Naked God, if you’ve read that. If you haven’t what I mean is the ending is very abrupt, invites a bit of a Deus Ex Machina, and leaves you thinking “yes, well?”

Of course if you’re two books into a three book series you’re not going to stop, and the book is good and everything. It just… well, you know.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

I got this book as a Christmas present, it filled an inexplicable gap in my otherwise complete Discworld collection. This also allowed me to keep reading all of the ‘Vimes’ books as I have been.

This is the first book I have read in 2008. I finished it at three minutes past midnight. Now that’s a way to spend New Year’s!

Pratchett uses Ankh-Morpork, and indeed all his Discworld books, to provide his own unique commentary on real world issues. The chief focus of The Fifth Elephant is diplomacy.

Vimes is sent to a far-off country whose hitherto chief relationship with Ankh-Morpork has been the source of its immigrants. Vimes notes that the country, Uberwald, is like a giant suet that everyone has just noticed on the table, and now the rush is on to get the biggest slice onto our plate.

Diplomacy comes naturally to Vimes, with its combination of threats, implied and actual, suiting his own character. Uberwald is not a country per se, being ruled by whichever local warlord currently has the upper hand. Vimes must contend with a conspiracy that reaches all the way back to Ankh-Morpork.

Pratchett also takes some subtle digs at the British monarchy, as the theft of the Scone of Stone threatens the future of dwarvish monarchy. For those not paying attention, the Stone of Scone is a small rock above which every British monarch, except the current one, has been crowned. It was stolen by Scottish nationalists in the 1950s and never recovered.

British in-jokes aside, this book is a good read by itself, but you’ll really benefit from having read the other Guards books first, as character development is ongoing. So, since you didn’t ask, here’s the reading order: Guards Guards, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud.

Sadly, Pratchett has recently been diagnosed with the form of Altzheimer’s. I have no idea if there will be any more Discworld books to come.