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56. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I wish I wasn't so far behind with this, or that I took notes or something, because I had a lot more thoughts about this that I can't remember.  This was supposed to be the first of four big projects this year and is the only one that I finished.

To my immense surprise, given that both war and all things domestic bore me, I loved this book.  (Most of it, anyway).  Which is why it's especially frustrating that it took me so long to read.  In short, it follows the fortunes of several upper class Russian families through the Napoleonic wars. Mainly, the appeal is Tolstoy's pithy descriptions of the characters that are spot on.  The early "war" portions were more interesting than I expected - mainly young men overwhelmed and blundering around the battlefield.  Later on, the battle of Borodino goes on forever but I think that was Tolstoy's point.

Tolstoy is at his best with the domestic scenes, which surprised me, because, as I said above, I have zero tolerance for that kind of stuff.  Jane Austen gives me the stabby rage.  I think it's the sheer variety of the characters and seeing how they live.  I would particularly have liked to know more about the religious pilgrims that Princess Marya interacts with.  When the Rostovs are being useless and taking two days to leave Moscow I wanted to slap them all into next week.

Conversely, this book is at its weakest when Tolstoy philosophises about history and fate etc, and where he has Napoleon as a character - it's just never convincing.

I've read a lot of 19th century Russian literature but mainly Gogol and Dostoyevsky - this is a lot easier going.  I also read Anna Karenina about 20 years ago and I don't particualrly remember liking it.
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55. A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

I first became aware of Lavie at last year's Nine Worlds and at read The Violent Century this year, which was OK but didn't do a lot for me.

At this year's Nine Worlds he was on the "How to Idea" panel and spoke about the genesis of this novel, set in an alternative 20th century where the Nazis were expelled from Germany in 1933 in a Communist takeover and Hitler ends up just about making a living as a private eye in London.  Needless to say, I had to visit the Forbidden Planet stall immediately after the session to buy the book.

I was not disappointed.  It's grim and violent and deeply, darkly funny.  Even though it's excellent it should have been difficult going, but it really wasn't - I read it in 4 days.  There is a real mystery (or 3) which are straight out of Raymond Chandler.  Oswald Mosley figures prominently.

But because Lavie is Israeli and the direct descendant of Holocaust survivors, it's not just an alternate world, it's a world dreamed up by Shermer, a prisoner in Auschwitz who was a pulp novelist before the war.  And it's also about how the English feel about refugees and immigrants today.

This is the blackest black humour I've ever read, and it's very good indeed.
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54. Saint's Blood by Sebastien de Castell

Book 3 in the Greatcoats series.  I have reviewed the first two recently.

I am definitely not the best person to write a critical review.  Regular readers will remember how much I love the series in general and the main character Falcio in particular.

This book continues to be action-packed with a duel in nearly every chapter, and Falcio discovering new enemies coming out of the shadows right, left & centre.  This time it's the religious orders, who were pretty irrelevant in the series up till now.  The gods and saints are being killed and the Greatcoats have to figure out why as well as stop the perpetrators. Falcio gains some new allies in this one, but continues to pay an extremely high price for fighting for what he believes to be right.

De Castell doesn't kill off characters often, but when he does it really packs an emotional punch.  This book has All The Feels and I loved it very much.



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I was less excited about this exhibit but I thought I'd pop in and see it while I was in the area.  I timed it well; I didn't get there till after 4 (though it's late opening day) and it was practicall empty.

It's a bit of a mess because it features art from the area that became South Africa from the very beginning to the present.  I really enjoyed the early stuff, as I've been reading a bit about neolithic art and rock art generally lately.

The other interesting aspect was the contemporary art - three pieces in particular are jaw-dropping, stop you in your tracks stuff that were worth the price of admission alone.

Although the narrative of the exhibition was at great pains to explain that African art during the period of white settlement is difficult because what survives was collected as curios rather than art, but it still feels that it's being displayed as ethnotgraphic artifacts rather than as art.  (Though that could be the result of 40-odd years of only seeing this kind of material displayed in that way).  I did not know that African people continued to do rock art into the modern period, and the pieces where they painted the early Dutch ships and the white settlers were really cool.

I skipped pretty quickly over the parts explaining apartheid - I suppose it's aimed at people who are too young to have spent the 80s protesting against it and being taught about it in school.

I stil enjoyed it, but less than the Sunken Cities.  Which probably says more about me and my interests than it does about the exhibtion itself.
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I've hardly used my British Museum membership this year, mostly down to health reasons, but also because of lack of motivation due to the overcrowding of recent exhibitions and the fact that I don't like the space in the new Sainsbury Wing.

That led me to look for reviews of Sunken Cities before I booked a coach ticket.  The only one I got as far as reading was the Guardian's - they hated it, but it was one of those reviews that was so sneering and mean-spirited that it just made me want to go.  At one point the reviewer admitted that they hate Egyptian and Hellenistic culture.  So why would you even - oh, never mind.

As it happens, this is the first time I've been impressed with what they've done with the exhibition space.  It's quite dark, the walls are all painted dark blue.  (But not so dark that I had trouble seeing everything, and I have fairly extreme difficulty getting enough light to see things properly on a good day, so clearly they know what they're doing).

The exhibition showcases finds from two "lost" cities of the Nile delta, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, which were founded in the 7th century BC and gradually sank as the channels of the Nile changed, were subject to earthquakes, etc, but are believed to have been inhabited as late as the 7th century AD.

There are lots of large monumental scuptures as well as the largest collection of ritual items ever found.  (In other places the metal would have been melted down for repurposing as they became obsolete).  Many of these are shown alongside videos of the archaeologists uncovering them.  This is something else the Guardian reviewer hated but I personally get excited watching underwater archaeology at work.

Then the exhibition takes a turn into telling the story of the Osiris myth.  I thought it was a bit of a non-sequitur but, like any good geek, I *love* that myth, and there were a number of excellent statues that normally live in Egypt, including several that I've seen in textbooks so it was fantastic to see the real thing.

The reason for telling this story becomes apparent when you turn another corner and the exhibiton takes you through the ritual that was done surrounding the Osiris myth every year.  We know about it from various sources but in Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus they have found physical evidence for the ritual.  So that was pretty exciting too.

There was a bit of a crush at the beginning of the exhibition but as I went on it was still busy but far less crowded, which made for a nice change.

I was going to buy the book as it's very nice indeed but I'm aware that I've been haemorrhaging money lately so I declined.  I can always order it later.

Definitely recommended, but it's only on for another week.
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53. The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Another novella, the follow up to Cornell's novella from last year, The Witches of Lychford.

Where the first book was mostly humorous - about three women, who all in one way or another can tap in to something "other", trying to stop a supermarket setting up shop on the outskirts of their small town, because it will bring down the barrier between worlds - this one is dark and scary.

It starts with one of the women (a C of E vicar) seeing the ghost of a child who is very much alive and well and loved begging for help.  A prince of Faerie contacts the owner of the local magic shop to try to warn her that something is wrong.  From there on the reader can see perfectly well what is going on, but the characters can't.  We also find out the truth about Judith's husband and it's not comic, as we've been led to believe, it's pretty horrific.

I couldn't put this one down, it's simply wonderful.

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52. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

This novella was recommended to me by Jonathan L Howard, author of the excellent Carter and Lovecraft.  It's basically a non-racist re-telling of The Horror at Red Hook.

The first half is the backstory of Black Tom (Charles Thomas Tester), a black man in 1920s Harlem who makes ends meet by doing what looks like low-level gangster jobs (acting as courier, etc) except that the trade is in occult objects, and his musings on how he's not going to allow himself to be broken by manual labour and racism like his father was.  This is the better half of the book.

The second half is from the point of view of one of the detectives hired by the family of the mysterious white dude who is buying up lots of slum property in Red Hook and this is where it becomes obvious this story is a re-imaging of Lovecraft's most infamously racist tale.  Although it is where most of the action lies, is less fulfilling because the character just isn't interesting.  However, the final battle and the outcome are very well done.

A quick read, and definitely worth your time.
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51. Transtories edited by Colin Harvey

I picked up this collection at a previous Bristol Con and have just got round to reading it in time for this year's. The late Colin Harvey was involved with the Bristol SFF scene but I never met him; the only person I know who has a story in here is Joanne Hall.

This is a collection of stories linked only by each being based (loosely) around a word beginning with "trans". It's an ecclectic and uneven collection (at least for me).

It stars out well with a story by Aliette de Bodard, The Axle of Heaven. I'd heard good things about her and off the back of this I bought one of her books in the recent big Hodder ebook sale.

Transference by Jay Carlsberg was interesting and thought-provoking, as was Transthermal by John Kenny. Jo's offering, The Snake on His Shoulder, was good fun (locking the devil in the bell tower is always fun right?). I also enjoyed Shopping for Children by Susanne Martin, set in a future where having children the natural way is no longer possible. Silver by Rob Rowntree was an interesting concept but had more domestic violence than I really want in a steampunk adventure. Rainbows & Unicorns by Cody L Stanford is brutal and heartbreaking but really, really good. Oh, for the Touch Tentacular by Jonathan Shipley, about a student trying to earn a living on an alien world where the sapient life forms are sauropod and concepts don't translate particularly well, was funny.

The rest didn't do much for me. I've discovered this month that stories set in post-human universes tend to make me bounce right off (the Stross book excepted), and two of the stories are that exact kind of thing.

In other words, it's like many collections - the good stuff is good indeed, but a lot is pretty disposable. Can't fault it for the variety of the stories - at no point did it all start to get same-y.
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50. Beloved Poison by ES Thomson

I heard about this in the Guardian. It's shortlisted for a Scottish crime fiction award (the McIlvanney). The rest of the contenders are the usual suspects, but, as a historical novel, this caught my interest. Not enough to buy it, obviously, that's what libraries are for.

It's set in a crumbling hospital that used to be a monastery in 1850s London which is being shut down to make way for a railway station. Everything we learn about the place leads the reader to believe this is no bad thing.

The narrator is Jem Flockhart, the hospital's apothecary, who is a woman living as a man because there has been a Flockhart as the apothecary at St Saviour's for generations and her father had no sons. A lot of readers have complained that this is a cliche (I went on to Goodreads and immediately needed to shower.) Look, assholes, there's three choices to deal with women as protagonists in historical novels and apparently they all make people bitch. Either you don't use women, and that's just not acceptable to a lot of modern readers. Or you have women as women, and the sexists masquerading as sticklers for historical accuracy shout you down. Or you can use the cross dressing trope (and, interestingly, more evidence is coming to light that this actually happened a lot more than has been previously thought) and get accused of being a cliche. Representation matters, people, so STFU if that's the worst criticism you can come up with.

Interestingly, as the novel goes on it becomes more obvious that Jem and his/her father haven't been fooling many people but they've all gone along with it.

Jem becomes friends with a young architect sent to supervise the demolition works. They find six tiny coffins hidden in a disused chapel (more than a little reminiscent of the real-life mystery of the six miniature coffins found in Scotland which has been used as a basis for many a modern book). They start to investigate and people start dying.

I had a mixed reaction to this book. Thomson has a PhD in the history of medicine so that part is spot on. She captures the Victorian era reasonably well. It falls short of pitching you right into the era as the Shardlake books do to the Tudor era, but those books are my benchmark. She makes an overly heavy-handed use of foreshadowing. However, the literal and figurative claustrophobia of the hospital environment is unsettling and there was enough going on that I wanted to find out what happened next.

Overall, not bad for a first book. However, it's supposed to be the first in a series and while I think it was a good stand-alone book, I didn't find anything about it a good basis for a series. Not convinced I will be following up.
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49. The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken Macleod

In the far future, a bunch of robots who are supposed to be mining/terraforming a planet achieve sentience and refuse to work. So the company brings back to "life" backups taken of the worst war criminals in the last world war to fight them. Except that none of them are quite what they seem.

I'm a huge fan of Ken's work but this didn't do it for me. It had its moments, but I think this is my least favourite of all of his books.
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48. Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

Of Stross' books, I've read all of the Laundry novels and the detective stories (Halting State and Rule 34). I thought I should read some of his sci-fi and this was sitting on the shelf at the library at an opportune time.

The voice is totally different from the two series that I've read (which are different from each other, but quite close). It's a lot more difficult to read as hes examining more complex concepts.

In the far future where biological humans have been extinct for thousands of years, synthetic people are colonising space. There is no faster than light travel, with complicated implications for finance. A mendicant scholar who studies the history of finance is looking for her missing sister, who may or may not hold the key to a missing space colony and the biggest financial scam of all time. She is being chased by their mother (a real piece of work), a spacefaring cult whose ship is a gothic cathedral (yes, that's as great as it sounds) and a ship of pirates/insurance underwriters who have taken on a giant bat form.

In other words, it's good fun as well as dealing with difficult concepts. Stross digs deeply into the economics of colonising space. At times this felt like a Ken Macleod book - he even uses the line "early days of a better nation" which is, of course, the title of Macleod's blog.

It took me a while to get into it but couldn't put the last third down; recommended.
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My account is broken again & the only device I can post from is my phone. Post & preview buttons are greyed out on my work desktop (IE), & both home Macs (Firefox & Safari). Yes I have logged out & back in.

Placeholder book reviews will go up on Facebook soon & I might look into a real blog for my media reviews. Might even prompt me to be more thoughtful & articulate.

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47. Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

The Greatcoats, book 2. I reviewed book 1 recently.

This one is even better - lots of swordfights, lots of smart-assery, but it's more elegantly plotted, and All The Feels are turned up to 11 as more and more sacrifice is demanded of the heroes to complete their quest (which may in fact be a non-quest, as there is debate as to the character of their late king). Massive betrayals, but also some redemption.

The only other fictional characters I feel about like I do Falcio are Harry Dresden and Jant from The Year of Our War. But it's not just the character, I love everything about this book.

The only social media de Castell does is Twitter - does this meant I have to open a Twitter account just to tell him how I feel about this book? Damn.
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46. The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

The seventh in Stross' Laundry series, in which Lovecraftian horrors from other dimensions are real, and there is a branch of the Civil Service to deal with it.

Regular readers will know that I love these books, and I was really excited to find that this one takes place in Leeds. It turns out that was kind of distracting - I kept having to check with Google maps that I remembered correctly where places are. But it made me appreciate things like the chapter title "the Doom that Came to Harehills" - I worked in Harehills for two years.

Like the last book, Bob is no longer the protagonist - he's now one of the scary people (in the loosest possible use of "people") on Mahogany Row. The protagonist is Alex, one of the vampires (sorry, PHANGs) from the last book but one. I like Alex a lot. He's funny and adorable. The adversaries are the Laundry-world take on the Fae.

So everything that should make it Right Up My Street, but I still struggled a bit with it. Part of it was a technical thing - the use of italics to demonstrate that the Fae are speaking in their own language. In my visually impaired state, I struggle with italics. Added to the fact that I never like the parts in books where the POV shifts to the antagonists, that meant quite a lot of the book wasn't that engaging.

It's definitely not that he's phoning them in (something some authors do when they get to this point in a series) - it's definitely well thought through.

I think the problem was that it wasn't The Annihilation Score - Mo is by far the most interesting character in the series, it's about classical music, and Mo's violin scares the ever-loving bejeezus out of me.
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45. The Empire Stops here: A Journey along the Frontiers of the Roman World by Philip Parker

I meant to read this when it came out, forgot about it, and then stumbled across it in the library recently.

I'd wanted to read it because while I have little interest in Rome itself, it's life at the fringes and the hybrid cultures that arose as a result that interests me. I'm all about the liminality.

In that respect, the book is pretty disappointing. It doesn't really work as a travel book either - just brief descriptions of the surviving physical remains of the empire at its fringes. What it does reasonably well is give brief histories of how an when Rome came to be at the ends of the empire, how long they stayed and how it fell. Which is not what I was looking for but provides decent background knowledge. There were just enough interesting factoids to keep me going through the full 500 pages.

It starts in Britain and works its way round to West Africa. There wasn't a lot I didn't already know in the Britain segment but as it got further from my area of knowledge, the more interesting it got.

It's not a bad book, but it kind of doesn't succeed in doing any one thing particularly well, and as an introductory survey of a massive subject it's just too big.
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44. The Haunted Vagina by Carlton Mellick III

This month's book club selection. (Thanks, J-P).

Well, that's one way to set up an alternative universe.

I didn't hate it as much as I should have, there was some visceral body shock horror that definitely worked, and some almost good ideas which simply never got followed through. And the author clearly hates women. It took two hours to read, so it's not like it took any investment. It also generated more discussion than I would have thought possible.

That does not mean I'm saying you should read it.
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43. One Virgin Too Many by Lindsey Davis

Of all the books clamouring for my attention, this one got me because of the end of the last book in the series, where Vespasian has ordered Falco back to Rome urgently. It turned out all he wanted to do was to give Falco a bogus sinecure as Procurator of the Sacred Fowl as a reward for uncovering a plot to poison them.

Compared to Two for the Lions, this one's fluff (which could well be intentional). There's lots of weird stuff going on but Falco is even slower than usual at putting it all together as he's even more preoccupied with personal matters than normal. As to where the missing child was, it was pretty obvious even to me.

The portrayals of the priestly class are straight out of Asterix comics. While it's hardly surprising that Falco is not well disposed towards them, Davis portrays them as buffoons at best and dangerous lunatics at worst and it's kind of at odds with the picture she usually paints of Roman life (human with good and bad qualities).

I still enjoyed it, but it's far from the strongest book in the series.
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42. North by Southwest edited by Joanne Hall

Disclaimer: This is another one where I know almost everybody involved. My name's in the acknowledgements because I contributed to the Fundsurfer.

This is a collection of short stories by the North Bristol Writers' Group. While it's not explicitly SF/F like the BristolCon publications, there's a critical mass of overlap so it leans in that direction. Throw in a murder mystery so it ticks that genre box as well.

The quality of the stories is very good overall. As has been mentioned in other reviews, the most fun story is J H-R's Miss Butler number, but there's a lot of good stuff. As always with short story collections, the very short ones do very little for me, but they were all technically good. I enjoyed the murder mystery, Pete Sutton's Latitude was nicely disturbing, and I especially liked Ian Milstead's House Blood. He's not the first person to link slavery and vampirism, but it works well nonetheless. Recommended.
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One of the nifty things about growing up in a country that is traditionally not very good at the summer Olympics is that the CBC and CTV showed (what seemed to be) a random lot of events with participants from various countries, and the roundup at news time was about which countries had the most medals and highlights from throughout the day.

Over here, nothing but Team GB this and Team GB that. Non stop. Mostly no mention even of which countries got the other medals. Radio 4 this morning couldn't stop saying how many medals Team GB has got with ZERO mention of where that is in comparison to other countries. Even if I was British I'm pretty sure I'd be completely fed up with that (and thoroughly embarrassed by how parochial my supposedly world-class news outlet is) by now.
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41. Two For The Lions by Lindsey Davis

A few years ago I read the first half of this series and then tailed off. I've read the first chapter of this a couple of times but couldn't get into it and thought maybe I'd had enough. Started it again on the bus/at lunch last week and got sucked straight in. Read the rest on the coach to and from London this weekend.

Standard Falco series stuff - Falco lands what he hopes is a lucrative contract as an auditor for Vespasian's census and is given the task of looking into the finances of various participants in the arena - gladiators, wild beasts etc and stumbles right into the killing of one of the lions to which convicted criminals are fed. This is, naturally, swiftly followed by the murder of a gladiator. For Reasons, the case unravels but Falco's entire family ends up in North Africa, where it all comes together again.

Because it's set in ancient Rome, even though it's mostly about a fairly clueless, smartass investigator, there's a lot of death and violence. Even so, the ending, where everything *really* all comes crashing down around him, is pretty dark.

And I have to read the next one really soon to find out exactly what Falco did bring to light about the sacred geese...

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