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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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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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33. The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

I was eagerly anticipating this and then for some reason thought it was due out in August and missed the release by a few weeks.

Anyway, it's wonderful. Just when you're wondering where the Laundry series can go (because there are major game-changing events at the end of every book), this one is written from the point of view of Mo, Bob's wife.

Throughout the series we have an idea that Mo is a more powerful demon-banishing badass than Bob (as well as the functional adult in the relationship). And she has the coolest weapon - a violin that kill demons.

In this one we find out just how scary the violin is (very) and the toll it is taking on her - it tries to kill Bob (now the Eater of Souls) and so he has to move out.

Meanwhile, there is a plague of people gaining superhero powers, Mo is outed by a BBC24 news team subduing one who uses his powers for evil, so she is tasked with being the public face of the new supernatural policing unit, including COBRA meetings, briefings with the Home Secretary and is given a crack team of Bob's ex-girlfriends to save her bacon.

It's the usual Laundry stuff - really funny, lots of action - but I really related to this one too much, especially the parts about dealing with management bullshit at work (from the perspective of being the manager).

I bought this on my Kindle because I'm ripping the house apart and need to have less stuff lying around, but then I went into Waterstones and saw how pretty the dust jacket is on the hardcover. Now I want to get that too.
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33. The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The brand new Laundry novel. At the end of the last one, if I remember correctly, Bob was steered in a direction that would give him a lot more high-level international work, so I was expecting something jet-setting.

Instead, in this one he's investigating a nest of vampires (which supposedly can't exist, even in the Lovecraftian Laundryverse) working in the City, and flushing out a mole in the department.

It's (intentionally) very Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I'm glad I just watched the film. It's very, very good despite the fact that if you look too hard at the mechanics of vampirism it doesn't really even work in the Laundryverse. I think.

Mostly it's just funny. However, the opening scene (summoning grid going wrong) is pretty scary, and the very end (which would be telling) is downright bone-chilling.

34. The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

Reserving the new book at the library reminded me I've never read the second, so I ordered that as well. This is the James Bond one. It alternately works and doesn't - bits of it are hilarious and wonderful, other bits fall a bit flat. I had some ideas why that is.

Having recently discovered that Stross has based each volume on a different spy novel series, I'm finding it all even more interesting. I had lots of thoughts, particularly about how James Bond is fundamentally different from all the other post-war British spies, but I've been awake all day and am not well, so maybe another time.
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47. Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by EJ Dionne Jr.

The backlog has been caused mainly by my waiting till I have the head space to do this book justice, but that is clearly never going to happen, and I can barely remember it now.

I bought this because the author was pimping it on The Daily Show and it sounded really interesting.

It's about how American political thought, right from the founding, has been trying to find a balance between communitarianism and individualism, but the current Republican part is trashing that balance. The only comparable period in US history is The Gilded Age of the late 19th century (otherwise known as the age of the Robber Barons).

He shows that the origins of the US republic were in reaction against the incipient capitalism of the British empire.

Although Dionne is a self-professed liberal, he has a lot of time for considered conservative thought and debate between the two sides, something he sees as completely absent from the current political scene.

I can't recommend this book highly enough for showing how things got to be the way they are, and why it's neither inevitable nor right.

48. Embassytown by China Mieville

Set in a human colony on the edge of the known universe, this is Mieville's work on the nature of language. It's fascinating, and uses tons of terminology I haven't seen since I was studying the development of language. The plot I'm less sure about, but it's still well worth reading.

49. The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The fourth Laundry novel, where HP Lovecraft meets Len Deighton. Still ridiculously sharply written, with a very interesting development at the end.

50. A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley

I thought this was going to be about the social consequences of the way Britain has been developing its cities, but it's more about the architecture itself, about which I am largely unable to care, or in many cases agree with the author. (He thinks all Victorian homes are uninhabitable. Bite me.) I almost gave up after the first chapter on Southampton, because every. single. word. was being negative. But he was actually quite entertaining on Milton Keynes so I kept going - it turns out he just really hates Southampton. Really hard going as it was lots of architectural terminology, but I persisted because there's chapters on cities I know well and/or find very interesting. There were some interesting bits of information in there, but in the end probably not worth the effort. Going straight to the charity shop.

51. Broken Harbour by Tana French

Brand new, this is her fourth crime novel set in contemporary Ireland. This one's set on one of the country's infamous ghost estates.

Like all of her books, this was a "leave me alone, I'm reading" from page 1. Very highly recommended.
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7. Rule 34 by Charles Stross

This month's Bibliogoths selection, and sequel to Halting State, which I've already read.

I don't remember much about Halting State, but I think I liked this one better.  I'm pretty sure it's funnier.

I have the same problem with this as I did with the first volume - namely, that it keeps getting confused in my head with the near-future Edinburgh of Ken Mcleod's The Night Sessions.  He also namechecks Rebus and uses some of the settings from the Rebus books, just to be extra confusing.

Neither of which is a problem if you don't read Ken Mcleod or Ian Rankin.
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77. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Neil Gaiman encourages people to read this all the time (it's clearly the inspiration for Stardust), and several people I trust have also pimped it this year, so when I found a copy at a friend's house I borrowed it.

It's an early (1926) fantasy novel where the realm of Faerie borders an uber-rational state where the existence of Faerie is officially denied.

It's a bit whimsical, as you might expect, but it's also - very adult. It's all about repression, and how it's bad.

This was something I read because I thought I should, but came away really impressed.

78. The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

The third of Stross' Laundry novels - if the world of Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos was real, it would have a bureaucracy to stop unwanted entities from other dimensions coming through.

I've not read the middle book, but this is different from The Atrocity Archive in that there's more of an emphasis on international (and inter-dimensional) espionage. I loved this slightly less than the first book, but still loved it quite a bit.

Two things made me laugh out loud and stuck with me - the iPhone has a level 5 glamour on it that makes people buy it (which would explain what happened to me), and in the first chapter Bob's train reading is a Dresden Files novel.

79. Boneman's Daughers by Ted Dekker

I bought this thriller in Thermopolis because I thought it looked good and was unlikely to remember to pick it up later. I was underwhelmed. It doesn't suck, but it wasn't quite what I expected and wasn't quite my thing.

A US naval intelligence officer has a breakdown after being tortured in the Iraqi desert. When he is shipped home, a serial killer called the Bone Man kidnaps his daughter, and the FBI think that he is the Bone Man. Meanwhile, he is complying with the Bone Man's demands in order to keep his daughter alive (which exacerbates the suspicion that he is the killer).

For me, there was too much angst about how his ex wife and daughter didn't love him, and I found the ending unsatisfying.

I won't be keeping it, so if any of you want to give it a go, drop me a line.

80. and 8.1 Ravenslea and Clouds Over Ravenslea by Pamela M Parry

These are my friend's mother's books. Other people's parents are pottering around in the garden in retirement, Lynette's mom is writing family-saga historical romances set in Devon.

I'm not very well placed to comment as they're really not my thing as I'm pretty completely allergic to anything with romance in the description. The second is much better than the first, though.

Like many small press publications, it's let down by bad editing - there are just too many commas.

I left this late because I was hoping to have another one finished today, but it's not going to happen.

December books
Non-fiction - 1
Library/borrowed - 2

I think I managed to not purchase any more books this month though.

Books in 2010 and goals for next year

I read 81 books! That's not too shabby - I was aiming for 75.

Once again I've been fortunate enough to encounter a whole lot of really awesome books. I've just had a look and I think it's going to be impossible to even try to choose favourites - I would witter at length.

So I'll make a point of choosing the most inspiring book of 2010, which was The Daily Coyote. On the strength of that book, I went all the way to the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming and was not disappointed.

My main ambition for next year is to read more poetry. Definitely.

As always, I'll be trying to shift the balance more towards non-fiction.

Did I halve the to-read pile? No, I did not. It's about a foot shorter, and a lot of the books are different. I was quite successful at reading books that have been lying around here for years.

This year I really do mean to halve the to-read pile - amongst other things, I'm also trying to keep my finances in order. Which means that some of the series which I had started to buy (Sookie Stackhouse, Dresden Files, everything by Ken Macleod) I will be more disciplined and order from the library instead.
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25. Halting State by Charles Stross

Crime novel set in a near-future Edinburgh. So far, so Night Sessions[1]. But this one's all about an in-game robbery that has real-world repercussions and the associated fallout.

For the first 40 pages or so, the second-person narrative (as if you're in a RPG, geddit?) annoyed the hell out of me, but as the action picked up I stopped noticing. At times it reads a bit like Cory Doctorow with the descriptions of the tech. So it ended up confusing my poor brain horribly.

I found it dragged a bit towards the end, but I liked the characters of Elaine, Jack and (to a lesser extent), Sue.

In short - pretty good actually, but neither a patch on Night Sessions nor on the other Stross book I've read, The Atrocity Archive. I'm still unsure whether I'm a fan of Stross in general or just the Laundry series.

[1] Night Sessions came out the following year, which in effect means that Stross and Macleod were writing at the same time. Sadly there are no lekis (crime-busting robots) in Halting State.
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32. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

This month's Bibliogoths selection, but as I can't go I'll post a review:

Imagine a world where Lovecraftian horrors can be summoned from alternate dimensions using an interesting mix of magic, mathematics and computer programming. There would, of course, be a super-secret layer of civil service to keep it all secret and under control. And count every last paper clip.

Sheer genius. Every single word. Hilarious and scary at the same time. I read a lot of good books, but this is the best thing I've read in a long time.

I shall be seeking out his other works forthwith.

33. In Sickness and in Power: Illness in heads of government during the last 100 years by David Owen

I have got to stop listening to Radio 4's Start the Week with the laptop on - if they're discussing a vaguely interesting book I log in to see if the library has it and reserve it if they do. This is quite often.

Lord Owen, long serving British politician who initially trained as a doctor, not surprisingly has an interest in how the health of heads of government has impacted on their governing. The first part is a bunch of short case studies of health problems various world leaders in the 20th century had; this is interesting but left me asking more questions than it answered. (This is generally a Good Thing, by the way). Part two is longer detailed case studies which, let's be honest, I was really only reading for the chapter on JFK. What is remarkable isn't so much that he functioned with so many serious health problems, but how appalling his treatment for them was, even by the standards of the time, until the last year or so of his life.

Where the book falls down, is that Owen has a bee in his bonnet about something he calls "the hubris syndrome" (he's written a whole book on the subject) which he admits isn't a recognised medical diagnosis, but he still devotes part 3 to a study of Bush and Blair's hubris over Iraq. Fascinating stuff, but does not fit well with the rest of the book, especially as he dismisses analysis of Hitler and Stalin by saying they didn't suffer from any formal psychiatric disorder.

Despite this inconsistency, I found this a really interesting and entertaining read.

His take-home message is "covering up illness is bad, m-kay".


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