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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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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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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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35. Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I've encountered Adrian on many a panel at cons, and people I trust rate his work. However, he writes doorstops that are mostly part of a very long multi-part series so I've been wary. One of the latest, though, while still a doorstop, is a stand-alone and appealed to me more than the series, so I picked it up while I was at Books on the Hill.

In an alternate world whose level of development is somewhere between the Napoleonic and First World Wars (the weaponry is the former, but they have trains), two neighbouring nations are at war. One country is so screwed (but telling the citizens that victory is just around the corner, and people believe it) that they have a draft of women, one from each household. The thing that tells you this is a fantasy novel is that there are Warlocks, but they're not very effective in war.

Most noble families send a servant; however Emily Marshwic believes in honour and duty so she goes herself. By virtue of her elevated station in life she is immediately made a junior officer. Because of her belief in honour and duty, and because her brother was killed there, she volunteers to go to the less desirable of the two fronts.

Naturally, everything she thinks she knows and believes is tested to breaking point. She is fighting in a swamp, using outdated methods because their country has honour, against a country who just do what needs to be done to win. Her only outlet is that she is able to write freely to the corrupt mayor of her home town, without being subject to the censorship that the army writing home contends with.

The war ends and follows her home in an awful (but predictable) way.

I have no words to express how much I loved this book: the characters, the pacing, the plot. I usually get very bored with long battle scenes, but even these were fascinating to read. The end was absolutely perfect, which I very rarely say at the end of a good long book.
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14. Sovereign by CJ Sansom

I loved the first two books in this series, and part 3 did not disappoint.

It is several years since the last story took place. Shardlake and his clerk/tough guy Barak are sent on a mission by Archbishop Cranmer to accompany the King's Progress in the North in 1641 (an even largely sidelined by history because of what happened next). On their first day in York, a local guildsman is murdered practically in front of them, and it all snowballs from there. Several attempts are made on Shardlake's life, and he even ends up a prisoner in the Tower at one point. Shardlake has a run-in with Henry VIII. It does not go well.

Couldn't put it down. The plot is excellent and I love the characters. I put it on my kindle when I was unwell a few weeks ago & I nearly downloaded the other three books and kept going. But my project for the Easter weekend is to finish all the half-finished books lying around, so I resisted.

I said this with the first two books - this series brings home the reality of the level of paranoia and terror that characterised Henry VIII's reign in a way that no history book ever could. In the first book, Shardlake was an ardent Reformer, in the second somewhat disillusioned, in this one he has come to hate the King and sympathises very much with the rebellious northerners. I love Falco too, but he can be an annoying pain in the arse. I love Shardlake much more - it's painful to watch him lose his idealism and get messed around and abused on account of what idealism he has left (with regard to law and fairness, not religion) and his disability.
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29. Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I loved this loads.

The prose is just gorgeous. Cromwell is more of a thug onstage than in Wolf Hall, yet you still feel for him.

If I don't feel better tomorrow I might just spend the whole day re-watching the series in the light of having read the books. I think it was a pretty faithful adaptation.
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4. Outcast by Michelle Paver

Fourth book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, set in Neolithic Europe. Yes, it's for kids. Yes, I read the whole thing yesterday (3 hours on the train will do that).

Torak is cast out from his adopted tribe on a technicality and has to prove himself, defeat one of the remaining Soul Eaters and save all of the forest tribes from a catastrophic flood.

Liked this one better than the other three - maybe because I read it all at once.
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3. Dark Fire by CJ Sansom

I liked Dissolution so much I started the next book right away.

It's three years later. Since we last met him, Matthew Sheldrake has become disillusioned with the reform movement (he still believes in reform but has seen that actually it's only going to profit the already-rich) and distanced himself from Cromwell, concentrating instead on his private legal practice.

A client comes to him asking him to defend a girl accused of murder. It's an almost-impossible task, but is made possible because Cromwell intervenes. On the condition that Sheldrake helps him out one last time (Cromwell is rapidly falling out of favour at court), to track down the people who have stolen Greek Fire, which has recently been rediscovered.

This one's another page turner. I've been up too late every night this week reading it. Two compelling mysteries, political intrigue, wonderful snapshots of daily life in Tudor England - what's not to love?

Sheldrake himself is a much more sympathetic character now. The self-righteousness is gone.

As in Dissolution, Sansom portrays the social upheaval and atmosphere of terror caused by the Reformation far better than any history book I've ever read.

I have six more library books already, and a room full of my own books, but the temptation to order the third volume from the library right now is almost overwhelming.
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1. Dissolution by CJ Sansom

One of the books in this series was dramatised on BBC radio not long ago and it Did Not Suck. Last time I was in the library the first and second volumes were sitting on the shelf, so I thought I'd give it a go.

These are set in the reign of Henry VIII and the detective is a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. Initially he is a agent of Thomas Cromwell in setting about the dissolution of the monasteries, but I understand that changes later in the series.

Shardlake and his assistant are sent to a monastery on the Sussex coast to investigate the murder of the previous commissioner who had bee sent by Cromwell to evaluate whether the monastery is corrupt enough to be shut down. They get snowed in, and further deaths occur.

So far, so standard. The puzzle is a good one (the crime was obviously committed by someone within the monastery, but who has a sword sharp enough and the skill to behead someone?), though.

I'm often wary of historical detective stories, but this really is a cut above the rest. It made me understand, in a way no reading of history books has, the feeling of living under the reign of terror (and that is really what Henry VIII's reign was). Shardlake himself means well, but is often hard to sympathise with as he is a hard-line Protestant reformer and his ideology sometimes gets in the way of his humanity and his sense. But only sometimes. The monks are all complex characters. Sansom really effectively shows the many ways people feel about reform, that there is no one way "Tudor people" thought.

An excellent surprise to start the year with.
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I am so far behind with this.

45. The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V by Hugh Thomas

The second part of Thomas' history of the Spanish empire. Where Rivers of Gold was dense but fascinating, this was just dense. This was a surprise - as I mentioned in my review of Rivers of Gold, I've read some of his earlier books and they've always been readable.

Somehow he made the discovery and conquest of Peru not that exciting, ditto the first voyage down the Amazon.

I struggled with this till the end because it was full of things I wanted to know, but it just got too bogged down in names and backgrounds in Spain of all the characters. Also it doesn't help that my stupid brain has to pronounce all the Spanish words in Spanish, but unlike French (which happens in the lizard brain), this makes me slow right down.

I learned a lot, it was just hard. Now I'm sitting here eyeing the last volume with suspicion - I got the first two from the library, but as they didn't have the third one yet I bought it.

46. In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

No, not the cool Murakami (who I went off some years ago, law of diminishing returns and all that, but who is at least sound in principle). Last month's bibliogoths book.

It was short and easy to read, but nothing about it appealed to me. If he was making any statements about Japanese society he was doing it with a sledgehammer. I've already read a lot about Japan's lost decade in the 90s, so it wasn't even like I was learning anything. It rambles and doesn't make sense.

47. Exploring Old Highway Number 1 West: Canada's Route 66 by J Clark Saunders

Bought this in the gift shop of the Moose Jaw tunnels mainly for the photos, which are superb. I feel like a bad Canadian, but I didn't know what a recent creation the Trans Canada Highway is, and that it's changed its route over the years. This book is a lovely nostalgia trip from the Ontario/Manitoba border to Victoria, BC. I've been on all of it over the years, but only as a means to an end. I now want to do it as a longer road trip taking time to see all the really nifty things along the way (which you sort of forget are really pretty or really cool because you live there, and because you have standard Prairie memories of your dad shoving the whole family in the car and driving for 12 hours, so that if you did see something cool, it's not like you ever would have been allowed to stop and look).

I highly recommend this book. The photos, as I said, are gorgeous, and the text is evocative of a Western Canada which I am barely old enough to have known.

48. The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

I bought the third volume when Jasper was speaking earlier this year. He was a guest at BristolCon in October so I grabbed the first and second books off the Forbidden Planet stall so I could get him to sign them (so I could tell him how much I love the line "honour is what happens when you weaponise manners".

I know they're aimed at the lower end of the YA spectrum, but I love these books so much. They are very funny, there is adventure and peril and some quite dark moments too.

49. The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

Of Mosse's previous work, I thought Labyrinth and Citadel are OK, and I loved Sepulchre and The Winter Ghosts, so I got this one from the library just in case.

I really rated this one. It's set in Sussex in 1912. The title character lives in isolation with her father, who used to be a famous taxidermist, but taxidermy has gone out of fashion and there's little work any more. She had a head injury when she was 12 and can't remember anything about her life before they moved to Fishbourne. Then the past catches up with them.

The actual plot and back story are OK, but nothing to write home about. However, the atmosphere is something else. It's low-level creepy right from the beginning and the suspenseful bit are well written, and the storm and floods which are the climax of the book are incredibly real. Maybe because we just lived through a winter of similar floods, but still. Also it was really easy going and I finished it really quickly. Definitely recommended.
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42. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I reserved this at the library as soon as I heard it was coming out; I didn't expect to get it so quickly, though.

I will come back when I'm feeling less brain dead and write a proper review at some point; the short version is it's wonderful - extremely tense and claustrophobic and insightful. Go read it now.

43. Soul Eaters by Michelle Paver

Book 3 of the children's series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. The best so far. It's a lot darker than the first two. There were no slow bits, and the whole second half is quite tense and brings moral ambiguity into play.
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Whoops. I had quite a lot to say about some of these, but I doubt I'll be able to remember any of it now.

17. Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

A collection of various articles and essays and a couple of short stories Stephenson has produced over the years. Fascinating stuff, for the most part. The longest piece is a series of articles he did for Wired about laying pipeline for telecoms, including the internet, in which he travels around the world following the path a line that was being rolled out at the time, and meeting the people who are responsible for it at all levels. Parts of that were less interesting to me, but switched off with things I found really cool, so I can't complain. Highly recommended.

18. A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

I went to an author event for this, and while I was a bit dubious about the concept, she spoke well and passionately about her work and I was convinced about the level of research she'd put in, so I bought it. It was possibly that she came tot he same conclusion about William Godwin - some good political & philosophical ideas, too bad he was a hypocritical ass and a leech to boot - that I did when I was working in the field that tipped the balance.

Set in London in 1860, her detective character, Charles Maddox, is hired by the descendants of Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Shelley to find out what Claire Clairmont (who really did live to old age) wants from them, as they are desperate to preserve the carefully fictionalised versions of Shelley's life they've presented to the Victorian public. Maddox lives with his great uncle, who was a thief-taker in the 1810s and was involved with the Godwins and Shelleys then, and the very mention of their name causes the old man to have a stroke, so young Maddox just has to find out what happened...

I thoroughly enjoyed this - her research is good and she uses fiction to fill in the gaps in the documentation. Instead of writing in a faux-Victorian style she writes as a 21st-century author to a 21st-century audience, but doesn't do so explicitly too often.

The only thing stopping me buying her book based around Bleak House, Tom All-Alone's, right now is the fact that my to-read pile is still threatening to take over the bedroom.

19. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

It's entirely possible the world doesn't need yet another book on the origins of WWI, but I got a lot out of it anyway.

The first section details the situation in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 20th century and is splendidly handled - incredibly information dense yet thrilling stuff. It's all conspiracies and secret societies. The rest of it is somewhat drier, where he examines the changing foreign policy situations of the major European powers in that period.

I had a lot of thoughts at the time, but the take away points seem to be:
Serbia and the Balkans were absolutely key. They were already being played down during the "July crisis" leading up to the declaration of war, but there's no getting away from that.
The assassins of Franz Ferdinand were demonstrably Serbian with links to factions in the Serbian government, as the Austrians asserted. However, starting with the Russians, all the Allied powers completely ignored this and refused to look into it.
There were already assumptions that Austria-Hungary was a dying power, long before the war.

Oh, and this book introduced me to my new favourite word: irredentism. Go look it up.

Long, lots of work, parts were not that exciting to me, but I'm really glad I read it. It took me a while to realise that he's the same guy who wrote Iron Kingdom, which I've been meaning to read since it came out; I'll look for it more actively now.

20. Fables from the Fountain, edited by Ian Whates

A collection of short stories based on Arthur C Clarke's Tales from the White Hart (with which I am not familiar, but hope to be soon) that has contributions from Neil Gaiman and Charles Stross. I somehow managed to miss it when it came out. Pat and I bought the only two copies as BristolCon, and otherwise it changes hands for ridiculous amounts of money.

It's based around a fictional pub on a back lane somewhere near Holborn, where a group of scientists and science fiction writers gather frequently to swap stories. They integrate into a whole really, really well. The Neil Gaiman contribution didn't do much for me, but the Stross story "A Bird in Hand", is hilarious. My favourite was "On the Messdecks of Madness" by Paul Graham Raven, even though the characters in it hate HP Lovecraft. The last few stories did less for me than the first, but there wasn't a really bad one in there. One is set in a pub in Edinburgh where a similar group gathers that includes Iain Banks, Ken Macleod and Charles Stross.

Thoroughly recommended if you can lay your hands on a copy. The only thing stopping me buying a copy of Tales from the White Hart is the aforementioned space problem.
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56. Viking: Odinn's Child by Tim Severin

Historical fiction following the adventures of Thorgils, son of Leif Eriksson through Iceland, Greenland, Vinland and Ireland.

Pretty average, but it got better towards the end as Thorgils is no longer a child. I have the other two volumes in the series; I'm definitely going to read them, but possibly not right away.

One throw-away line alone made it worth it. I've been reading a lot about the settlement of Iceland recently, all repeating the story about how the first settler there threw his furniture overboard and vowed to settle where it washed up on shore, presenting it as a "isn't pagan superstition funny" kind of way. Thorgils suggests that this was really to see where the currents generally wash things up on the shore, to ensure having ownership of that bit of coast, and thus everything that washes up on it. Which makes a lot of sense.

September reading

Seeing as I don't know what happened to September, it's not surprising that I barely finished 6 books. 2 non-fiction. 2 from the library. I suspect I acquired more books than that.

I also figured out how I read so many more books in the first few months I was at this job, in the interminable bus journey to the gym. When I started working, I was doing that 3-4 days a week, and it is now down to 1-2. That's a lot of reading time.


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