Monday, March 1. 2010
Historical romances are an area that tend to be considered under the general rubric of writing for women, not least because of the association with bodice rippers; it’s an association that does the genre no favours, since it becomes synonymous with “crap”.
It’s a rather unfair reputation on two fronts; any genre will be rich in rivers of crap, and it seems a little unfair for fans of one genre to look down their noses at fans of other genres based on the lower echelons of the works in said genre. Moreover, there are no shortage of men who worked in it, including Arthur Conan Doyle (whose White Company and short stories set in post-Roman Britain dovetail neatly with chunks of Cornwall’s work).
Anyway, I’ve had bits of Cornwall’s Arthur series lying around the house since, well, since I got the second on in the series from a reviewer who was clearing out the newspaper’s unwanted review copies in, oh, 1999. So I guess it was time to get around to reading them.
Continue reading "The Arthur Trilogy"
Saturday, February 13. 2010
Today in kiddie French we read Animal Farm for three year olds.
The book was the story of le canard; le canard worked around the farm while the fat farmer lay in bed eating chocolates; le canard worked until he cried with exhaustion, at which point the other animals—la vache, les muttons, and a gaggle of others—stormed the house, threw the farmer from his bed, and chased him from the farm.
Then le canard returned to doing the work around the farm.
Sunday, January 17. 2010
One of the more affecting spectacles from my time in England was visiting a small Roman excavation site on a B-road; it was a villa that had only been partly extracted relatively intact. The part that particularly snagged me was the note that the villa had been stripped of the lead from its lead and guttering, which was apparently usually woven into the thatch of Britons’ houses.
It was, I think, on of the sadest images as a decline of a civilisation; Roman Britain had houses with plumbing, even central heating in some cases. When they left, as the Empire crumbled, the remaining Britons were unable to maintain Roman technology, prefering to scavange well-appointed stone housing for houses made of wood and mud.
Reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Trilogy has reminded me of this; it’s theme, of course, is the decay of the post-Roman Britons in the face of Saxon invaders, but the loss of knowledge is explicitly referenced throughout the novels; the Romans, his Guinevere notes archly at one point, had the technique of keeping warm, but it has been forgotten. Similar observations are dotted throughout the books.
When people suggest the inevitability of progress I am put in mind of that little villa; social structures, technology; these can all be lost, easily, for for a long time. It is a lesson we’d do well to remember.
Tuesday, October 28. 2008
So, what have I been reading in the past wee while? Well, in the fiction stakes, let’s consider a few:
(Note: there may be some minor spoilers herein. Nothing that should actually ruin your reading, or upon which key plot elements and gotchas hinge, but be warned…)
Continue reading "Fiction Roundup"
Sunday, August 19. 2007
A bunch of writers I like have always spoken highly of Robert E Howard; adjectives like “muscular” and “gripping” tend to be bandied about his Conan stories, usually alongside notes that much of the Conan-related materialother authors working in the Conan canon, movies, and so onaren’t even a pale shadow of Howard’s writing, so when I happened across this substantial paperback in Unity, I decided to take a punt on it.
Continue reading "The Complete Chronicles of Conan"
Sunday, August 12. 2007
Monday, July 30. 2007
A collection of 14 fantasy and sci fi stories based around the simple premise: what if the evil overlord actually read one of those huge lists of things they should and shouldn’t do.
Sounds good, right? Scope for funnies, perhaps even more. Well, let’s just say there’s a reason this was only fifteen bucks at Unity. Yes, there are a couple of good, interesting stories (“Daddy’s Little Girl”, “A Woman’s Work ”, “Art Therapy”, “Ensuring the Sucession”, and “Geordie Culligan vs. Dr Longbeach & The HVAC of Doom” are all fairly good and smart), but most of the ones trying to be funny fall… flat. Very flat. Basically, a third of the storiesthe ones I just mentionedare good. Most of the rest are meh, and a couple are crap: “If Looks Could Kill” would embarrass a bad Livejournal, and “Loser Takes All” is MAKING A POINT in a way that suggests the author is an over-ernest teenager.
At $15 I don’t feel ripped off, but I didn’t get a bargain, either. At full paperback price I’d be feeling cheated.
Sunday, July 22. 2007
I have a generalisation about science fiction and fantasy genre fiction; the former tends to be written by people who have interesting ideas but indifferent abilities to develop characters, to tell stories, to engage the reader. One often slogs through pages of mediocre prose in order to enjoy the little gems of speculation therein.
Fantasy, on the other hand, is afflicted by legions of writers who are perfectly capable of sketching an interesting character, of encouraging a reader to keep turning pages, but devoid of anything resembling an original idea, preferring to crib from the few giants of the genre, wrap their characters in silly names, churn out trilogy after trilogy, and get very rich indeed.
Steph Swainston is a fantasy writer. She is also producing the best, most interesting, and most importantly, original fantasy I have read in the 20-odd years since I started with Lord of the Rings. Since then I have read a reasonable chunk of fantasy, and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy is the only work even in the same ballpark; The Modern World is the third book in a series.
Many of the central questions of The Year of Our War and No Present Like Time are to do with immortality: if immortality can be granted and revoked by one man, what would you do to gain it? What would you accede to in order to keep it? And how, then, once you won your prize, would you live with it? The Modern World continues with that theme, starting years after No Present, with Jant off drugs, away from the parallel worlds they give him access to, and back to his core job of fighting the hordes of insects invading his world.
It seems a step back from the previous novels in terms of complexity for much of the story; we are reset back almost, it seems, to the start of In The Year of Our War; the subjugation of Tris is barely mentioned. The only thing throwing us from an orderly, simple, boring, heroic fantasy piece is the simple task of retrieving a lost daughter.
Ahh, such a plain start I feared the promise of the series was fading. I should know better.We are again off at breakneck pace. In a few pages Swainston can cram idea sketches that would give a less able novellist the basis for a whole novel, a whole series, a whole career.
I cannot praise this series highly enough. It is, quite simply, the most engaging fiction I have read in years.
Thursday, July 19. 2007
This paen to cricket opens with a scene worthy of Douglas Adams: a scratched-together cricket team on the Ross Shelf, observed by Leopard Seals, with players fighting the attentions of Skuas and penguinsand, as the title says, losing to the last.
It doesn’t hurt that the tale is told by someone who could stack up to Adams, either. I was giggling through page two and three, and stayed for more.
Imagine that you always wanted to play cricket. Badly. But that your first chance came at university. And that chance came, not through an established team, because no-one wants an adult player who’s never taken the field before, so you decide to get a bunch of equally hopeless players together and get beaten around the local pitches by teams of players who (horror!) actually know what they’re doing.
Along the way, you discover a number of things. One is that there’s a fundamental tension between two types of crap player. One crap player will happily play like shit and still work their arse off anyway, because even if your best isn’t good enough, isn’t giving it a go the main thing? Others have a different view; if you aren’t likely to win anyway, do badly; take pride in how crap you are. Snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Hell, snatch crushing defeat from the jaws of honourable loss.
The author called his team the Captain Scotts because he has a soft sport for glorious, did-my-best failure. As one might imagine, a certain amount of the book involves the tension between the club members who subscribe to that idea, and those who take pride in being no-hopers (and resent any effort to, well, make one).
The meat of the book, though, is the travel: the club ends up going abroad to India, and, ultimately, arranging to play cricket in all the continents. Most matches are lost, of course, but there are victories, and the doing is the thing. Harry Thompson is a good writer, and his highs (a victory here, bonding with opponents there, a sublime time in Argentina) and lows are wonderfully told; we are with him in wishing to sink into the ground when some of his team members forget, as he puts it, that it is no longer 1932 and Indians are under no obligation to cope with the appalling rudeness of random white people who show up in their country. It is witty, well-written, and more complex than one might expect; descriptions of the countries and the reaction of the players put me in mind of the best bits of P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell.
I’m not sure how accessible the descriptions of cricket are to anyone who has a less-than-casual aquaintence with the game.
I cannot, above all, stress how funny parts of the tale are. I was in hysterics reading parts of it. I highly recommend it if you have even the faintest interest in cricket and a love of good writing.
Just one word of warning: the end will tear your heart out.
Tuesday, April 3. 2007
OK, so I’m reading this after it was made into “a major motion picture”; blame Unity, my main supplier of crackHHHH^Hbooks for not having Christopher Priest’s most recent effort on the shelves until it now.
I’m very fond of Priest; I started reading his early stuff like _Real Time World. and _Fugue for a Darkening Island; a signatue of his work is that he’s fond of presenting narratives about worlds that differ markedly from our own; they start out seemless, solid, with the reader seeking to understand the alternative universe. Even as you do, you begin to see chinks and cracks which are the keys to deciphering the puzzle of what’s really going on.
In that sense, Priest’s favour of sci-fi is rather whodunnit flavoured, or perhaps more accruately, howdunnit.
Something I have noticed is that his earlier work tends to be embedded in more orthodox science fiction; his two most recent books, The Separation and Prestige are more concerned with the mystery and the story than the devices used to enable them; indeed, I read one short review of the movie of Prestige that suggested it was more fantasy than sci-fi, since the mechanism of one of the mysteries might as well be magic as science. Certainly it’s the classic soft sci-fi where we are not meant to worry too much about the mechnisms, but more their effects.
I enjoyed the way Prestige plays with multiple views of the same incidents, starting with contemporary perspectives and then segueing into diaries to tell the events of the past. We’re treated the points of view of each of the protagonists in turn, and as we see through their eyes, our views of the characters shifts; one account will leave us in sympathy with one character, the next will lead us to hold him in contempt. It’s a well executed example of the technique, and kept me on my toes.
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