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2017-03-15 09:24 pm

[books 2017] Early Medieval Scotland

16. Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas b David Clarke, Alice Blackwell and Martin Goldberg

I picked this up at the National Museum of Scotland last year. Early medieval Scotland is an extremely poorly documented period; this is an account of what we currently think the archaeology is telling us. I admit to mainly buying it because it's full of gorgeous colour photos. The text is a bit dry but it brought me up to speed on a subject where there was a gap (I know a lot about most of the rest of northern Europe during this period). Definitely worth it for the photos though.


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2017-03-15 09:17 pm
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[books 2017] The Bear and the Nightingale

15. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This is the book that Facebook kept trying to sell me, and it sounded relevant to my interests. I wasn't entirely convinced so I got it from the library.

It's a fairytale set in the far north of late medieval Russia during the rule of the Mongol Horde. In the glossary and author's note, she admits to taking some liberties with dates - not that you'd notice; medieval Russia is pretty damn obscure. I don't know much more about Russian folklore but this has the right feeling about it. Again, the author is not claiming authenticity.

It's about a young noble girl growing up in the northern woods. There are portents surrounding her birth, and she grows up being able to see the household and nature spirits that protect the people, animals and crops in the area (which everyone acknowledges exists but nobody else can see). That is, until her father remarries and her religious fanatic stepmother sees them and believes they are demons; she has an equally fanatic priest brought from Moscow. There follows a struggle for the survival of the village.

It's also about growing up, family, expected social roles and fanatacism.

It comes very close to being one of those books that is just so magical you can't put it down, but for reasons I can't put my finger on, didn't quite achieve that. It's still a captivating story that I enjoyed immensely, and I highly recommend it.


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2017-03-14 09:06 pm

[books 2017] the rest of February

I was going to give each book its own post this year; however, I'll never catch up that way. So here I go with quick drive-by reviews. Ask me if you want to know more.

9. Path of Gods by Snorri Kristjansson

The final volume of Snorri's Viking age trilogy. It's been fun watching Snorri develop as a writer through the series. The first book was just OK but he pulled out a really *interesting* take on the mythology surrounding the Norns at the end, so it had my attention. Plus, Vikings. The second book was better and represented a big improvement in pacing. This one pulls it all together and is very good indeed.

Snorri's next project is, allegedly, going to be Viking murder mysteries. You could say I'm eagerly awaiting it.

10. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

My first thought on finding out Neil was writing this was, "does the world really need another retelling of Norse mythology"? But I was full of plague the day it came out, and I wanted some comfort reading so I bought a copy.

The answer is, strictly speaking, no. On the other hand, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Neil's voice was made to write the Norse myths. It's also a very lovely book (I say to justify paying full price for the dead tree version). Nothing new here, but it livened up an otherwise miserable weekend.

11. The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

This is the grimmest thing I've read in a very long time. And, you know, I'm a goth who used to read Dostoyevsky for shits & giggles, and thought A Man Lies Dreaming was a great fun black comedy. It's clearly very well written because I couldn't put it down even though I had a good idea that [redacted]. I had A LOT of thoughts about this at the time, some of which I've even remembered, but there's no way to discuss without major spoilers. Happy to discuss it over a pint though.

12. Z for Zachariah by Robert C O'Brien

The fun just kept on coming last month. This was last month's book club selection. Most of us had read it in school. For a post-apocalyptic number, it's surprisingly upbeat. I liked it but not all that much; however it was a good book club selection because we got a shitload of discussion out of it.

13. Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith

I vaguely meant to read this when it came out, forgot, and then picked it up at the library some weeks ago. It's the story of the fate of the Russian nobility who did not escape Russia after the revolution in 1917, told through the medium of two large aristocratic families (who between then covered the full range of experience).

This book wasn't quite what I expected - it was a lot more thorough and well researched than I expected. I did the Russian history course as an undergrad so I used to know a lot of this stuff, especially about the decades leading up to the revolution but I'd forgotten most of it. I'd mainly forgotten that everyone knew a revolution of some kind was coming and that the days of the empire were numbered. For decades.

If there is a fault with this book, it's that the author is too sentimental towards the noble classes. There are complicated reasons why he is sometimes right to defend them (in the absence of a middle class they were the artists, doctors, teachers, etc). Or maybe I'm just a crusty class warrior.

I couldn't keep the cast of characters straight. But you get the general idea - every time the "former people" found a niche for themselves and a way to survive in Soviet Russia, another round of persecutions started. The distance many people traveled over the years were staggering, and not just those who were went to the gulags.

Because my brain is an asshole, the thing I've come away with is the reference to the fact that by its end, serfdom has been compared to American slavery. Most things that are compared to American slavery are just a cover for racists trying to justify it; however, this could be an exception. I made a note of the source in the footnote - something totally obscure. Must. Not. Expend. Time. and Money. Tracking. It. Down.

14. Ode to a Banker by Lindsey Davis

Falco, book 12. Falco investigates the murder of a publisher, who was also a banker. All the usual stuff, Falco taking lots of swipes at bankers and publishers. Good fun. Well, except for one of Falco's sisters possibly making an enemy of the wrong person.


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2017-03-10 08:19 pm

[books 2017] The latest Ben Aaronovitch

8. The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

Woo hoo! I'm in to February now. Which means I still don't remember my thoughts on this book.

I've been a fan of this series since the start. I seem to recall that general consensus was that the last one, where Detective Peter Grant goes to the country, was less good. I loved it - it had psychopathic unicorns, for a start. The general consensus also seem to have been that this one is a return to form. (Did I mention I was a bit late reading it - I was number 46 on the list at the library when I put the reservation in). Whereas I never thought he'd gone off form.

Anyway, there's a mysterious death in One Hyde Park, the most expensive address in London, and there's Weird Shit, so Peter becomes involved. I can't remember much more; suffice to say it's a good addition to the series, and progresses the story arc so that I eagerly await the next one.


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2017-03-09 09:39 am

[books 2017] The Janus Cycle

7. The Janus Cycle by Tej Turner

Also from January.  I had a lot of thoughts about this at the time, too, but they're all gone.

The author read from his work in progress, which is the sequel to this, at the January BristolCon Fringe. It was very funny so most of us came away with a copy of the first book, which is made up of a series of interlinking short stories surrounding the young people who go to the Janus Club.

It reminded me a lot of people I knew in my late teens and early 20s - all the misfits with no family, adrift, not having found their place in the world yet. Only weird supernatural shit didn't happen to us.  But the heartbreak and the shitty living conditions, that's all too real.  There are gay characters, trans characters (so like any alternative scene), so if you feel that representation matters, this is the book for you.

It's very much a first book, but I enjoyed it a lot. A good reminder that being young sucks a lot of the time.


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2017-03-09 09:31 am

[books 2017] the First Signs

6. The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger

I finished this back in January so most of my thoughts are long gone.

A little-studied element of prehistoric art is the symbols that appear alongside the other figures. Von Petziner is one of the first people to make a systematic study of them. As this is a book aimed at general readers, there's a lot about life in the paleolithic and stories of the discovery of the art of that period. There's also a lot of description of crawling around in muddy caves to verify and better record the symbols which have often been overlooked. She makes it sound like great fun.

Her theory is that art and symbols developed in homo sapiens before they left Africa and just doesn't survive (or hasn't been found) because it emerged so fully formed across Europe at about the same time. Makes sense to me. Along with the art, people developed abstract symbols, a sort of precursor in writing. She doesn't hazard a guess at what individual symbols meant but is cataloguing them to look at distribution over time and place. She also takes a great interest in how the art/symbols were actually made and what that tells us about their makers.

This was a really interesting read, a good addition to my cave art collection.


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2017-01-26 04:37 pm

[books 2017] I meant it about the Vikings

5. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I'd not heard of this series until it was filmed by the BBC last year. I thoroughly enjoyed the adaptation and grabbed the book when the Kindle edition was cheap.

I still haven't worked out whether Cornwell is a terrible writer or he just does Uhtred's voice very well. (When your narrator is a barely-literate 9th-century warrior, it's kind of hard to tell). Either way, I found it very hard to put down. For those of you not familiar with the story, Uhtred is born into a Northumbrian noble family, his father is killed in a Viking raid and he is taken captive by a Danish family. But he is valuable to the Danes even though his uncle has taken over his lands, and the Danes like, him, so they treat him like a son. As an adult he goes to Wessex & serves Alfred the Great in the hope of one day getting his lands back. It's mostly about fighting and becoming a proper warrior - the exact sort of thing I don't usually like.

On the one hand, it's been a long time since I read something this easy and pulpy. On the other hand, a lot of serious writers get their history & culture less right than Cornwell. I hesitate to recommend it, because there really is not a lot to it, but I loved it and had to stop myself downloading the second book right away. (Must finish the Shardlake series and the Falco books before I start on another historical series).


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2017-01-26 04:29 pm
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[books 2017] All Vikings, all the time

4. Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson

Second book in the Valhalla Saga. I reviewed Swords of Good Men a couple of years back. It was just OK for most of the way through but then got really interesting at the end.

This book picks up shortly after the battle at Stenvik which closes the first novel, and follows the two protagonists as they deal with having become immortal in their different ways. Odin takes an interest. Meanwhile, the sinister healer heads to Trondheim to find the source of the northerners' power.

This book is much better. It's still got multiple POV characters and strands, but it doesn't jump between them in as awkward a way as the first book did. The parts set in the north (land of the Sami, magic, and weirdness even to the Norsemen) are very good indeed. Nothing profound here, just good fun.

Now I can get on and read volume 3, which I somehow managed to acquire before this one, and has been sitting around waiting for me for ages.


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2017-01-11 09:17 am
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[books 2017] Prisoners of Geography

3. Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics by Tim Marshall

Or Geopolitics for Dummies. A good basic explanation of how geography limits the options of various world regions. This is the 2016 edition and is very much up to date for now, but if it isn't updated regularly it will date quickly.

Having said that, there's a lot of information that will continue to be useful, where Marshall explains how and why various countries have developed in the way that they have.

Parts of this book were a bit basic for me, but I did learn a lot. The best chapter was the first, on Russia. I studied Russian history at university and this book gives a context we weren't given to a lot of events that otherwise don't make a lot of sense.

This book (or something like it) should be required reading for everyone. It explains a lot about how and why the world is the way it is.


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2017-01-08 09:22 pm
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[books 2017] The House Next Door

2. The House Next Door by Will Macmillan Jones

I bought this from the author at BristolCon. It's a traditional cursed/possessed object horror story. A downtrodden young woman impulsively spends money she can't afford on an antique unicorn statue. Within hours it has killed her abusive mother and more nastiness soon follows. Fortunately, she lives next door to Mister Jones, who knows a thing or two about the occult and a man who can bind and banish the entity.

It doesn't add anything new to the horror genre, but it's a fun couple of hours' read.


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2017-01-05 10:29 am

[books 2017] Fight Like a Girl

1. Fight Like a Girl edited by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall

(Usual disclaimer applies - this book had the best launch event ever).

A collection of fantasy/SF short stories by women, about women in combat situations. The settings range from hard SF to traditional fantasy & everything in between. All the stories are well written, but some grabbed me less than others (hard SF and high fantasy being not generally my thing, nor are protracted fight scenes). Not that it's all about fight scenes. I enjoyed the Lovecraftian horror one a lot (predictable) but Gaie Sebold's at the end is by far the best. All The Feels, as the young people say.


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2016-12-30 09:54 pm

[books 2016] The Mind in the Cave

61. The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams

I've been meaning to read this for years. It was, I think, the first popular book setting out the theory that Upper Paleolithic cave art in Western Europe serves a religious, shamanic purpose. The argument is persuasive. Basically, anatomically modern humans all have basically the same response(s) to stimuli which bring on altered states of consciousness and Lewis-Wiliams takes the reader through the various reasons many scholars now believe that cave art is an expression of a shamanic society. I've read a few other books on the subject but this is the only one I've read that focuses on the neurobiology.

This is another book I got a lot out of, it's given me lots to think about and needless to say, now I want to learn more.


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2016-12-30 09:45 pm
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[books 2016] Dead Bad Things

60. Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon

I picked up an early novel of his about a decade ago, and enjoyed it but never followed up. I found this one lying on the freebie table at BristolCon and nabbed it.

The prologue is a bit naff, but the main book grabbed me right from the start. A young police woman and her partner are called to investigate a disturbance in a posh part of Leeds and find a grisly murder has taken place. Her father, also a police officer and truly nasty person, has recently died and she finally works up to tackling all of the evidence he left behind. Meanwhile, a psychic called Thomas Usher (who I understand is a recurring character in McMahon's work) is living in a "grey area" (area so haunted it's left derelict) in London trying to lie low, but keeps getting messages from a supernatural force trying to manipulate him - or help him, he doesn't know which.

I greatly enjoyed this book - the murder mystery is interesting, the Thomas Usher bits are malevolent and disturbing and the solution is fairly satisfying. Will definitely looking for more of his in the future.


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2016-12-30 09:37 pm
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[books 2016] Historical Atlas of the Celtic World

59. The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World by John Haywood

You might be thinking this sounds a bit basic for me. However, the take-away from my two visits to the Celts exhibition was that any knowledge I had was 20 years out of date. This was on sale at the Edinburgh exhibition and it's full of lovely colour illustrations and interesting maps so I grabbed it.

It's made up of lots of short chapters so I've been dipping in and out for a couple of months. It covers origins to the present day. It filled in a lot of new developments in the early centuries and covered a fair amount I'd never got round to finding out about medieval Scotland and Wales. It is pretty basic, in parts to an extent where even I was going "I think you'll find it's more complicated than that". But as a re-introduction it was a visually pleasing start. At least I have an up to date basis to make further investigations, should I choose to do so.


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2016-12-20 07:52 pm
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[books 2016] Random fantasy

58. The Sea-Stone Sword by Joel Cornah

Joel (creator of The Milliverse, if you do Twitter) is published by the same publisher who publishes Joanne Hall, so I picked this up at the Grimbold Books stall at BristolCon.  It was recommended because I'd run out of Sebastien de Castell and it has "swashbuckling" in the description.

It's about a young boy's quest to become a hero, or is it a villain?  Where does one end and the other begin?  It's a concept I can get behind, there's pirates, sapient penguins, dinosaurs and dragons, so what's not to love?

Unfortunately it's a bit of a mess - the pacing is odd, so parts just fly by and others drag.  It could have done wiht much tighter editing.  Some of the characters are believable and others not so much.  Parts are told well and other bits are questing-by-numbers.

It's a first book, though, and I've got the sequel as well.  I'll give it a chance to see if the writing and editing have tightened up.  Also I want to know more about the penguins.

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2016-12-20 07:52 pm

[books 2016] Born to Run

57. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

As I've written about elsewhere, I came to Bruce's music later in life, but am enough of a fan that I wanted to read the autobiography.

It's about 75% about music - listening to it and making it. Some Amazon reviewers complained about that, but that's what I'm here for.  Like Keef, Bruce realy comes alive when talking about music.

Having said that, his rock and roll anecdotes, while nowhere near as wild as Keef's, are authentically funny in the telling.  (The crossing the toll bridge into New York with $1 worth of pennies story is a particular gem).  His descriptions of how his early musical endeavours sucked are beautifully self-deprecating.   Anyone who's ever been in a less than competent band will relate.

For many years he had very little life outside of music because when you're a bit bipolar and a bit OCD, that's a great way to self-medicate.

He talks about how he was lucky to grow up in an age where there was such a variety of music to inspire him, but I think he was even more fortunate that he grew up in an era when recorded music was nowhere near as good as live quality-wise, so every bar had an in-house band and he was able to make a living (albeit a pretty poor one) as a full-time musician straight out of school and didn't have to waste time at a day job, and got paid to hone his craft.  That's something that's sadly not an option any more.

He comes across as a genuine, caring, hard-working guy who has had good luck but also worked very hard to make his dreams come true.  He's never ungrateful about how things have worked out.  It's long, but totally worth it.

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2016-12-11 08:23 pm
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[Book 2017] War & Peace

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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2016-12-11 08:23 pm
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[books 2017] A Man Lies Dreaming

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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2016-11-20 06:51 pm
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[Books 2016] Saint's Blood

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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2016-11-17 02:18 pm

[books 2016] Lovecraftian horror

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.