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At this rate I'm never going to get a proper reading blog set up; so I'm picking up here from September. There are a load of books I've read since March that I should write up too, but I may or may not ever find time.

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

Billed as the story of Lenin's journey on the "sealed train" (it wasn't) through enemy Germany and neutral Sweden to return to Russia after the February 1917 revolution, this is actually an introductory history of the February revolution. Lenin's actual train journey is only one chapter.

All my reactions to this book are coloured by the fact that I also recently read China Mieville's October.

Lenin on the Train has been generally well received, so I'm going to be the voice of dissent here.

Part of it is me - I often have difficulty with history books for the general reader, being an ex academic historian. I was expecting a detailed blow-by-blow account of the train journey. (Stupid, I know, there's a special level of nerdiness that would entail which would not lead to it being on prominent display at Waterstones).

In the introduction Merridale says she retraced Lenin's steps. A travel book comparing the journey now with then would also have been something that floated my boat, but that was dispensed with in a couple of pages.

I might have welcomed another good general book on the Russian revolution - I did the Russian history module as an undergrad but what little I remember is 20 years out of date. But I found a lot frustrating.

A lot of the story is told through the lens of the British diplomatic and military staff in Russia. I found this really troubling - as if the author decided that an English-reading audience could not deal with the "otherness" of narrating from a Russian POV. Descriptions from the Germans' POV are much more relevant - they were the ones who let Lenin through in the hopes that he would destabilise Russia enough to get them out of the war.

This goes beyond my usual reaction to history books for a general reader ("it wasn't technical or nerdy enough) and veers into "does cultural imperialism have to ruin everything?"

Another niggle was that I didn't think she did a good job of getting across just how doomed everybody thought the Russian regime was in the decades up to its downfall.

Fun factoids gleaned include: Neutral Sweden was awash with spies (there's a trashy novel or six in there); forces of extreme reaction in Russia actually wanted to side with authoritarian Germany rather than with liberal democratic Britain and France; spies from all countries were such upper class twits it's astonishing any actual intelligence ever got through.
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Still here. Getting into more of a routine with the new job and it is kicking my ass less.

As some of you will know from Facebook, the fireplace was installed yesterday. I'd got all worried that it was too big (not in a "it won't physically fit" way but in that it would look wrong). That was the anxiety speaking - it looks perfect!

Sunlight is good for me. Even though it's been too hot even for me the last couple of days, I still feel better than I have in about two years. Today has cooled off but it's also overcast and sticky, so I hope I stay feeling well. In order to avoid over-thinking and stressing over packing for the Newfoundland trip (6 days away!!!) all weekend, I have decided to go to London for the weekend to catch up with some people. This was mainly made possible by the new super off peak train fare - it's not as cheap as, say, booking the coach a month in advance, but it's faster than the coach and I can catch any train on the weekend, so I can come and go when I am ready rather than either rushing or having to hang around.

Have not done any book blogging for several months now. I could start, or I could continue to prevaricate over whether to continue doing it here or to start a "proper" blog. Guess which I've opted for?
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The knee injury was the weirdest thing. Thursday I could barely walk; went home & iced it & took some Naproxen. Friday morning it was a bit creaky and by lunchtime completely better.

I've now worked out what set it off. It wasn't the class where it happened, it was the Zumba class the day before. We have a new instructor & new style. Which would be great if I was still a hyperactive skinny 20 year old. (I know. Two years ago I was doing Insanity weekly. But then injury and I'm not there again yet). I definitely noticed the strain on my knee last night. Here's hoping it doesn't get set off in my class tonight again.

So just when I had a routine going, I'm back shopping for classes. I should be shopping for a new gym, but there are only three cheap gyms in the city centre. Pure would be better, but all the Young People from work go there - who don't get about exercising when you're fat & old & injured. So no. Gym Group have nicer machines, but a truly uninspiring class list. If I didn't need classes, every big hotel has a gym membership programme (including the one across the road from work), but I really do need classes.


Jun. 8th, 2017 09:04 am
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Messed up my knee at the gym last night. Not doing the really high impact stuff (like Tuesday) or even the twisting-round stuff, but just stepping up on to the step. The class was nearly over so once I established I could weight-bear, I carried on.

Iced it when I got home, and it hurt less.

This morning it hurt like a sonofabitch. It's a long walk to the bus at both ends, but once I get walking it's fine. Stairs are less fun, but I can avoid them at work at least. Getting up from sitting & walking short distances are also pretty awful - guess what I do all day at work?

Anyway, if it still hurts tomorrow I'll make an appointment, but I really do hope it passes. I had finally got back to doing exercise something like regularly, and I'm quite heavy enough as it is, thanks.
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I've been reading a lot of CJ Sansom's Shardlake series lately - as in finish one open the next.

In the middle of Heartstone there is reference to a character firing an arquebus (no threat to the longbow as the most effective personal weapon of the age) it struck me that the world needs more Tudor-era set sci-fi/fantasy.

Done well it could be thought-provoking. The Tudor era is the dawn of modernity but John Dee was still talking to angels. There is also the intrigue and terror as a political method. There's enough documentary evidence for a good knowledge basis but still sufficient gaps in the record to insert all manner of cool imaginings.

Done badly it would be stick-a-ruff-on-it steampunk.
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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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