The Book Corner
The right-hand panel of this page contains links to the main categories of my book reviews and a summary of the external links that I have found to be most useful. Most of these links will also appear in the main text of this page.
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Brian's Book Shelves
Here is a selection of some of my favourite books in various (overlapping) categories, with some indication of what the book is about and/or why I like it. The exceptionally fine ones (in my opinion) are marked with a gold cup.
In each section, books are listed in alphabetical order of author's last name. Hyperlinks will tell you more about the author and his or her works.
Fiction For Young People, Enjoyed by All Ages
I find that some of the best fiction around falls into this category!
- Hardinge, Frances: The Lie Tree
- This was my introduction to Frances Hardinge's books. I hesitated about giving it a “gold cup” award, not because it doesn't deserve it, but because I enjoyed the other books of hers that I describe below even more.
- In fact, as this excellent review from The Guardian points out, The Lie Tree is the only book since The Amber Spyglass by Phiip Pulman (see below) to win the Costa Book of the Year, an eclectic competition open to First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children's Book.
- The author describes her book as “a Victorian Gothic mystery with added paleontology, blasting powder, post-mortem photography and feminism”.
- You can find all of Frances Hardinge's books here. I have described my other favourites below. The only book of hers that I have read and didn't enjoy so much (and it isn't a bad book) is Verdigris Deep (aka Well Witched in the USA).
- Hardinge, Frances: Gullstruck Island
- This wonderful book (aka The Lost Conspiracy in the USA) is a gripping adventure story set in a brilliantly constructed world.
- It was chosen as one of Time Magazine's 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time.
- I have yet to read a review that really conveys how good it is, and I can't complain since I can do no better. I will merely point out that this is the only book I know to feature volcanos as actual characters, and that the “Lost” in the American title refers to the ability of some people to leave their bodies and mind-fly.
- Read and enjoy.
- Hardinge, Frances: Fly By Night, Twilight Robbery
- These two books (hopefully more to come) are rollicking picaresque adventures set in an England-that-never-was, a country broken into small kingdoms, controlled by powerful guilds, and featuring an endless supply of hilariously-named household gods.
- Fly By Night introduces you to the feisty young heroine, Mosca Mye, the exasperating but useful con-artist Eponymous Clent, and a gander with serious attitude. Both the storyline and the world in which it takes place are richly-detailed (too rich for some reviewers, but not me), and the style of writing has more than a dash of Terry Pratchett's sardonic humour. A good review of this one will be found here.
- Twilight Robbery (aka Fly Trap in the USA) is a hugely satisfying adventure story, whose central idea is too good to give away in any detail. It takes place mainly in the fortress-city of Toll, where nightfall has an extraordinary significance, and I have read World War II escape stories that were not as exciting.
- In both stories, Mosca Mye is a heroine to be reckoned with. Some reviewers compare her to Lyra in Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy (see below), but there is also more than a dash of Arya Stark or Lyanna Mormont in HBO's Game of Thrones, and I can easily imagine a film/TV version of Mosca Mye's adventures (as surely will happen) featuring Maisie Williams or Bella Ramsey as Mosca, if those actresses were still young enough at the time of filming.
- (I had better add that unlike Game of Thrones, the Mosca Mye stories are perfectly suitable for “young adults” or precocious younger readers.)
- Hardinge, Frances: A Face Like Glass
- I have saved my favourite Frances Hardinge book (so far) for last. I would unhesitatingly give it a place in my (so far nonexistent) “Top 100” list of books of any genre.
- Set in an underground world of considerable social and topological complexity, it produces an apparently endless series of unfolding mysteries, surprises and inventions that continue almost until the very end.
- An excellent spoiler-free review of this book will be found here.
- Pratchett, Terry: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full Of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, The Shepherd's Crown
- These are possibly my favourite of all Terry Pratchett's books, following the story of Tiffany Aching, trainee witch, and the Wee Free Men, a hilarious bunch of tiny Caledonian hooligans. The stories are very funny, they are very wise, and best of all they have the witches. I suspect that (as with Samuel Vimes of the Night Watch in some of his other Discworld novels) his principal witches carry much of his own personal philosophy.
- The Shepherd's Crown was Terry Pratchett's final work before
his death in March 2015, a wonderful way to end his career. Its dedication was:
For Esmeralda Weatherwax — mind how you go.
- You will find more about Terry Pratchett's work in the Fantasy section below.
- Pullman, Philip: The Ruby In The Smoke, The Shadow In The North, The Tiger In The Well, The Tin Princess
- A set of cracking good stories set in Victorian times. They follow the adventures of a group of linked characters, among them Sally Lockhart. Sally (played by Billie Piper in the BBC's superb production of the first book, with two more to come) is an independent spirit in a time when girls were expected to know their place in society. Many copies must have been read in an all-night torch-under-the-bedclothes session when the reader was supposed to be asleep!
- These books may be aimed at older children, but they pull no punches. The third book, in particular, reveals the deprivations of Victorian London in all their horror, but don't be put off by that. The fourth book doesn't feature Sally very much, and I didn't enjoy it as much as the first three on first reading - but I have revised that opinion having just read them all again!
- Pullman, Philip: Northern Lights (a.k.a. The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass
- These books form the "His Dark Materials" Trilogy. Apart from being a gripping story involving parallel universes (one of which is ours, containing our Oxford, another containing an alternative Oxford), the trilogy introduces several serious, deep themes, including the conflict between human sexual love and some forms of religion.
- More about this classic fiction here.
- Ransome, Arthur: Swallows and Amazons (series)
- Many of these wonderful books were set in the English Lake District. We visited that beautiful part of the world in September 2008, after which I wrote an article about Arthur Ransome, his books, and some of the real places in which his books were set.
- You will find the article (with pictures and many interesting links) here in my Categorian blog.
- Stroud, Jonathan: The Bartimaeus Trilogy
- If you like Philip Pullman's cracking Victorian thrillers (see above), then you will like these equally gripping thrillers also.
- Jonathan Stroud's trilogy has the flavour of Philip Pulman, combined with the sardonic humour and intelligence of Terry Pratchett, together with a dash of J.K. Rowling. Jonathan Stroud is no imitator, however - this is unique stuff.
I have written a full review of this trilogy, which you will find here in my Categorian blog.
- More children's books
- You will find many posts on children's books here in my Categorian blog.
Sunny Side Up
These are books that keep reminding me that life is good, after all (even if it doesn't feel like it sometimes). I couldn't count how many times I have read them!
- Durrell, Gerald: My Family And Other Animals
- This is an unsentimental account of a magical childhood spent on the Greek island of Corfu, with a delightfully eccentric family and an equally eccentric circle of friends and acquaintances. It was during this time that Gerald Durrell developed his love of animals into an occupation that was to last all his life, often to the horror (or at least resignation) of the rest of his family.
- This book became part of my own family's life. My sister and I could recite major parts of it to each other from memory: Margo's ghastly Turkish boyfriend (who "had all the sleek, smug self-possession of a cat in season")... Gerald's brother Leslie moaning in anguish as he cleans the mud off the barrel of his beloved shotgun, attached to the other end of which is his pompous older brother Larry, fuming vitriolically as he sinks further into the glutinous mud of a drainage ditch... Spiro, the ferociously scowling Greek taxi driver who becomes their guardian angel... the episode with Larry and the scorpions in the match-box... the magical night by the sea, a picnic accompanied by fire-flies, sea phosphorescence and dolphins... It is one of those books that you wish that you could read again for the first time.
- Of all Gerald Durrell's many other books, my favourite is probably The Bafut Beagles, a joyous account of an animal-collecting trip in the British Cameroons, with some wonderfully entertaining characters amongst both animal and human populations.
- Shute, Nevil: Trustee From The Toolroom
- This tells the story of Keith Stewart, a simple man living in post-war England who writes for "The Miniature Mechanic", a magazine for engineering model makers. His naval brother-in-law entrusts Keith with his daughter while he and his wife sail to Canada, taking with them (illegally at that time) their assets in the form of diamonds, which Keith has helped him to hide in a metal box, embedded in the concrete of the keel.
- When the boat is wrecked in the Tuamotus, killing both parents, Keith realizes that he must recover the diamonds that are his niece's legacy. With very little money of his own he sets out on his long journey the hard way.
- During each stage of his journey he is helped by friends in England and America that he never knew he had, friends made through the help and encouragement he has provided through his magazine articles and the many letters he has written to people in need of assistance. One of these turns out to be a lumber magnate living in Tacoma, Washington... and Keith's life will never be quite the same again.
- This is a quietly written, heart-warming story of a simple man having to do extraordinary things. Of all of Nevil Shute's many excellent books (of which the most famous is probably A Town Like Alice), this is my favourite.
- Nevil Shute also features in this post on my blog page.
- Smith, Alexander McCall: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Series)
- These delightful books (thirteen of them, as of April 2011) tell the story of Precious Ramotswe, a "traditionally built" Botswana woman, and her mission to solve the problems of her local community.
- The author clearly loves the country and the people that he writes about. Running throughout these sunny stories is a (very lightly delivered) message about what is really important (and not important) in life.
- The first book in the series has been made into an equally delightful movie by the late Anthony Minghella (it was his last film). I have reviewed the movie here in my Categorian blog.
- Since you're here...
- If you like this category, then you will probably also enjoy my web page called The Bright Side, as well as this collection of posts on things to enjoy in life from my Categorian blog.
- Gilbert, Ian: Little Owl's Book of Thinking
- This book is about metacognition, or "thinking about thinking", which is a fascinating topic in its own right.
- It is disguised as (and is) a delightful children's book, but both young and old will enjoy it (and learn from it).
- The author's link is well worth following up, and you will find an excellent review of this book here.
- Hofstadter, Douglas R.: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. A Metaphorical Fugue On Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll
- This is one of the most amazing books that I have come across. It is truly a mind stretcher, more of a hard mental workout than a normal read (but a very entertaining workout). Weaving together ideas from musical forms, formal mathematics and Escher's graphic art, it includes (if you stick with it) an unexpected deep insight into the role that RNA and DNA play in the processes of life.
- Describing this book to someone who hasn't read it is a very difficult task (for me, anyway) - luckily you can read a very good description of it in Tal Cohen's excellent review.
- The 1986 edition that I have fades away a little right at the end, maybe because it looks forward to things that are only just starting to happen.
- Welchman, Gordon: The Hut Six Story: Breaking the Enigma Codes
- Gordon Welchman worked at Bletchley Park, on the most important British de-ciphering operations of the war,
from 1939 to 1945. As the book summary says:
"No other book has explained so thoroughly how the job was done, and how so often a flash of genius, an inspired insight, or even a stroke of luck, tipped the balance from failure to success, against all the odds."
- The details in this book, often complex but very clearly explained with many diagrams, make for fascinating reading (and study), and the human side of the story is equally fascinating.
- Since you're here...
- If you are still reading at this point, then you will probably also enjoy the set of web pages that I have grouped together under the title Mind Stretchers!
- Asimov, Isaac: The Original Foundation Trilogy: Foundation, Foundation And Empire, Second Foundation
- These stories were first published in book form in the early 1950s, and there are two amazing things about them:
- How little they have dated (unlike E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman Series, which is still enormous fun to read but has dated horribly), and
- How short they are (roughly 180 pages each), considering how much appears to happen in each book. Asimov somehow makes the reader's imagination supply the background that other authors would describe in explicit detail - which is one reason why the books haven't dated.
- These hugely entertaining stories are galactic in scale (written before such things became commonplace), but focus more on the battles of wits between people rather than on the space hardware, which is another reason why the stories haven't dated.
- When the stories begin, the scientist Hari Seldon has developed a new branch of mathematics that can predict the behaviour of billions of people (but not the behaviour of individuals), and realizes that the Galaxy is doomed to many thousand years of stagnation and anarchy. In an effort to shorten this period to as little as a thousand years, he establishes the Foundation, apparently to preserve vital knowledge through what is to come. His actual plot is much more subtle.
- As with many Asimov books, there is a mystery to be solved, which unfolds through the three volumes in a highly satisfying way.
- The later books in this series (obviously written using a word processor and padded to meet the demands of a market-driven publisher) are much longer in word count, but contain no more actual story content than the originals did. I don't like them anywhere near as much as the originals.
- I also like Asimov's earlier Robot stories (so much so that it was a long time before I could bring myself to see the film starring Will Smith, which was actually surprisingly good). Of all his many other SF novels, my favourite is probably The Gods Themselves (the title being taken from the quotation: "Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain."). I have no idea whether a latter-day publisher provided the inspiration for this title...
- Brin, David: The Uplift Books: Sundiver, Startide Rising, The Uplift War, Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore, Heaven's Reach
- I have read a lot of science fiction in my time, and these are among the very best (my only criticism being that some of them could be more tightly edited). Apart from being riveting adventure stories on a huge scale, they combine many of the author's interests, including geology, ecology, literature, Japanese culture and poetry, and the evolution (and artificial "uplift") of intelligence in (among others) dolphins and chimpanzees. You certainly don't have to be a science fiction fan to appreciate these books.
- Sundiver is perhaps not as good as the others - you won't miss too much if you skip it and start with the second book in the series. The last 3 books form one continuous story (which really begins in Startide Rising, although that can be read on its own): don't start them unless you have access to all 3!
- If I had to pick just one book from this series then it would be The Uplift War, which I would certainly give a "Gold Cup" to.
- Card, Orson Scott: The Ender Sequence: Ender's Game, Speaker For The Dead, Xenocide, Children Of The Mind (and Ender In Exile, see note)
- (Note: Ender In Exile has been recently published. Its position relative to both the Ender and Shadow sequences is described here. I recommend that you read it after reading the rest of both sequences.)
- People rank books in different ways, but any serious compilation of "The Best Science Fiction Books Ever Written" must surely include these at, or very near, the top of the list.
- Ender's Game is a very fine book - one of my all-time favourites. But the rest of the "Ender" trilogy, the last part of which is split into two volumes (i.e. 4 books in all), takes SF to an extraordinary level, both in science and quality of literature. The relationships between people (not all of them human), and the ways in which broken people get fixed (or tragically, not fixed), are every bit as important as the (mind-boggling) science.
- Ender's Game focuses on a group of special children, and on Andrew ("Ender") Wiggin in particular, chosen for their potential to provide the military leadership needed to defend the Earth against a race of insect-like aliens (initially seen as the traditional bug-eyed monsters, but this concept is eventually overturned in a fascinating manner as the books proceed).
- It is recognized that the existing military culture cannot develop the special qualities required, and the children are isolated and trained in the Battle School, an orbiting space station that includes zero-gravity Battle Rooms in which the children develop tactics and leadership skills, as well as a computer "Mind Game" which (like the aliens) will eventually take on an extraordinary significance.
- It is a mark of the quality of the writing that even the communications between the adults who are ruthlessly forcing Ender's development (communications that open each chapter) provide sympathetic insights into their motivation and characters.
- In Speaker For The Dead, Ender (now reviled as the person who killed an entire alien race, although he believed at the time that he was commanding a fleet in simulation) has left the previous story about 3,000 years behind, thanks to relativistic space travel, although he has aged only about 25 years.
- With his past unknown, and secretly carrying with him the cocooned "Hive Queen", last survivor of the race he nearly exterminated, he is called to Lusitania, a Portuguese-culture colony world, to "speak the death" of a xenologer inexplicably killed while interacting with the second alien species to be introduced in these stories.
- Several complex story-lines unfold, as Ender finds himself fixing the broken family of the tragic woman who originally called him (and with whom he develops a relationship worthy of the finest Russian authors), the mystery of the two alien species and their relationships deepens, and the extraordinary significance of the "Descolada" virus that permeates the planet starts to emerge.
- We also meet Jane, a non-human intelligence whose true origins and nature only gradually become apparent, and whose story is intricately bound up with all that happens. Jane, IMO, is one of the finest creations in SF.
- In the third part, split between Xenocide and Children of the Mind, the story-lines develop against the threat by the Starways Congress to completely annihilate the world of Lusitania (motivated by fears of the Descolada virus and of rebellion spreading) and their threat to destroy Jane herself.
- The story-lines weave their way through the Chinese culture of the world of Path, where the terrible secret behind the intelligence granted to the "godspoken" gradually emerges and Jane's existence is betrayed to the Starways Congress, the Japanese culture of the world of Pacifica, where attempts are made to bring political pressure to bear to stop the destruction of Lusitania, the resolution of the secret of the Descolada virus, and the extraordinary consequences of Jane's success in providing faster-than-light travel (one of which literally produces children of Ender's mind).
- The haunting sequence when Jane is fighting death, and lights dance through the very special trees of Lusitania, will remain in my imagination forever.
- Card, Orson Scott: The Shadow Sequence: Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets and Shadow of the Giant
- These stories need to be read after the Ender sequence, although they are a parallel part of the overall tale. They begin during the time of Ender's Game, and then continue in the period between Ender's Game and Speaker For The Dead, when Ender is travelling into the future.
- If you are getting lost...
- ... you might want to take a look at the map of all the Ender books which you will find here.
- Ender's Shadow is Bean, a tiny (when first seen) and highly intelligent boy who was with Ender in Battle School. Bean's early childhood,
if it can be called that, was spent surviving the grim streets of (a future) Rotterdam.
The story woven around Bean and the other Battle School graduates (and Ender's brother and sister, about whom I have said nothing but who are deeply woven into both sequences) is almost as fascinating as the one in the Ender sequence, and the two sequences interact in many ways.
- At the heart of the Shadow sequence of novels are the political and military conflicts arising from the return of the brilliant Battle School graduates to Earth, where their presence allows different countries to try to use them to pursue their own ambitions, ambitions that have been suppressed while the threat of alien invasion existed. In fact the Battle School graduates do more using than being used, and the result is a complex game of Risk being played for real, with both good and evil motives.
- In many ways the Shadow sequence is "future history" rather than science fiction. There is little science here, compared to the Ender sequence, although Bean's high intelligence turns out to be the result of genetic tampering, which will have some tragic consequences.
- As always with this author, the relationships and interactions between people are what is really important, and the sequence includes a very poignant love story.
- Herbert, Frank: Dune
- This book, which I first read not long after it was published in 1965, is said to be the world's best-selling science-fction novel, and with good reason.
- Arthur C. Clarke
(a truly visionary SF writer whose own novels, oddly enough, have always left me a little cold) wrote:
"Dune seems to me unique among SF novels in the depth of its characterisation and the extraordinary detail of the world it creates. I know of nothing comparable to it except Lord of the Rings."
- It is not an easy book to describe in a few sentences (but you will find an excellent and very full description of it here).
- It is an epic adventure story set in a vision of the far future, with (although I didn't know it at the time) strong echoes of Gibbons' "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", in which the vital interests of various warring and competing factions are pinned to the unique spice production of one planet - the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.
- Among other properties of this spice, "melange", is the vital one of providing the Guild Navigators with a form of prescience that enables faster-than-light travel through folded space.
- Arrakis hides secrets, however, protected by its desert dwellers, the Fremen, whose culture is very different from that of the decadence in the rest of the galaxy.
- One of the fascinations of the book is the gradual discovery of these secrets by the young Paul Atreides, the son of an honourable duke and the hero of the story. Paul is forced to flee to the desert with his witch-mother Jessica when his family is betrayed to a particularly evil adversary — and eventually uses what he finds to turn the tables on his enemies. He risks, however, igniting a jihad that will spread beyond Arrakis.
- The ecological theme behind the planet's secrets is important, and it is no accident that the author's dedication reads as follows:
"To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of 'real materials'—to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration."
- The story is full of intrigue, plotting and all forms of skullduggery, and is much richer and more complicated than appears here... which is as it should be! You will find many links about it if you go here.
- The novel "Dune" had many sequels, none of which I liked as much as the original, and I once watched a movie made from the book which I found very disappointing. However the original novel is still acknowledged to be one of SF's greatest masterworks, and I would highly recommend it to anyone even if they aren't an SF fan.
- Jemisin, N.K. The Broken Earth Trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky
- This work can be classed as both science fiction and fantasy, and is absolutely top-of-the-range in either category.
- It's the only work I have read in which the “science” part is geology, and the style of story-telling includes passages addressed to “you”, putting you in the story as one of the characters - but which one, and who is telling you the story, is something you don't find out until the end.
- The whole trilogy, in fact, is a gripping and apparently endless series of reveals.
After much effort I managed to put together a review (or rather, a review of reviews) that doesn't contain too many
spoilers. If you would like to know more, click the Cat or go here.
- Niven, Larry and Pournelle, Jerry: The Mote In God's Eye
- Of all the good works by these two authors, separately and together, this is my favourite. It tells a very realistic story of a first encounter with aliens, with a deep and sympathetic exploration of the conflicts of interest that emerge, both amongst and between the human and alien species. The story also builds up considerable suspense, leading to a climax that leaves doubt about the future, and yet is strangely satisfying.
- If you're tempted to read the sequel (which isn't bad), I would recommend that you leave well alone in this case.
- Since you're here...
- If you like this category, then you will probably also enjoy this collection of science fiction related posts from my Categorian blog.
The best fantasy novels include some truly great works of literature. As we read them we seem to see our own world in a mirror with strange reflections.
Here are a few of my personal favourites.
- Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Stories of Earthsea: A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales From Earthsea (short stories), The Other Wind
- Ursula Le Guin is often compared with J.R.R. Tolkien, but she is coming from a different place, and provides another original platform upon which other writers of fantasy fiction have (gratefully, I suspect) built their own creations. Christopher Paolini in Eragon has clearly borrowed from both Le Guin and Tolkien, for example, while adding his own original content. I don't think that Tolkien would have minded this cross-fertilization in the slightest; he meant to create a coherent mythology for England where (as he saw it) none previously existed - of course, he was drawing on other sources of mythology (Norse, Teutonic and Celtic) in doing this.
- Ursula Le Guin's worlds are often bleak and wintry, and people learn their lessons the hard way. Her concept of Magic is serious stuff, and her philosophy of life has an Eastern flavour to it.
- She has the gift of totally immersing you in a story, so that finishing it is almost like waking up from a dream. I felt that particularly when finishing another of her books (a very wintry one), The Left Hand of Darkness (one of the books of the Ekumen).
- A visit to her web site is recommended!
- Moon, Elizabeth:
1. The Deed of Paksennarion: Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, Oath of Gold (available as a single eBook)
2. Paladin's Legacy: Oath of Fealty, Kings of the North, Echoes of Betrayal, Limits of Power, Crown of Renewal
- These are the main “Paksworld novels”, an epic story of personal development and high adventure, set in a richly detailed medieval world.
- The story is divided into two very long parts, consisting of 3 books and 5 books respectively. The first part alone is nearly as long as The Lord of the Rings, and contains far more than its title would suggest.
- A summary of these novels in a few sentences?
- If you can imagine a story on the same scale as A Game of Thrones, or more accurately A Song of Ice and Fire, but with an entirely different flavour (more like Anne McCaffrey than George R.R. Martin), then this might convey something of Elizabeth Moon's great work — but could also be quite misleading.
- Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, most principal characters in this story are strongly moral,
there are many heartwarming moments, and the first part is told almost entirely from a single point
of view, that of Paksennarion (Paks for short), a tall, strong sheepfarmer's
daughter who dreams of becoming a hero.
- Paks's story begins when she rejects the marriage that her father has planned for her (she is uninterested in sex, anyway) and leaves home, never to return. She walks thirty miles overnight to enlist as a soldier in what she hopes (correctly, as it turns out) is an honourable mercenary company. What happens next is an extraordinary tale, involving people, places and events that she never could have imagined.
- The second part widens in scope (somewhat like The Lord of the Rings does after the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, although this tale is entirely different and far more complex). It follows the intertwining personal journeys of several major characters from the first part as they rise to the challenges of their world, with Paks playing a minor but very important role.
- As the tale unfolds we discover (along with Paks) more and more about her world, which is possibly the finest example of imaginative world-building in literature - certainly the finest that I have ever read.
- Paks' world contains eight feudal kingdoms in the north, separated by mountains from a warmer southern region in which cities thrive (or not) on trade, regulated in most part through various guilds (including a Guild of Thieves).
- Kingdoms and councils (and power-seekers) protect or further their interests in a number of ways, including raising their own militia and hiring mercenary companies.
- Apart from men, the world is populated by a number of non-human races, including some that are borrowed from Tolkien, but considerably developed. Elves in this tale have evil counterparts, for example, and the interesting rock-dwellers are not dwarves.
- The world also contains dragons, but you will not meet them until well into the second part — and when you do, they are not like Anne McCaffrey's, George R.R. Martin's or Christopher Paolini's dragons, and that is putting it mildly.
- Magic and magery (not the same thing) exist here. Magery is feared and suppressed — it lends almost irresistable power to evil, and can corrupt those who are good through the pleasure of its use. Nevertheless its use for evil can only be defeated through magery itself — and thereby hangs an important part of the tale.
- In the second part of the story magery is reawakening among ordinary people, and fear of it leads to the rise of extremism and many interesting conflicts.
- The world's diverse religions have a hierarchy of deities, both good and evil. At the lowest “good” level were a few men — Gird and Falk in particular — whose very down-to-earth deeds in life have elevated them to a kind of patron-sainthood.
- Many ordinary people (not including Paks, initially) follow either Gird or Falk, or are chosen by them, and some people have very real interactions with their patron-saint — although they may not believe or appreciate what is happening for quite some while.
- Gird was a peasant who defended people against oppression using staves and cudgels. His followers have a self-defence organization and way of life based on grange and barton, which have replaced the barns and farmyards used in Gird's time for both meetings and training.
- Marshals are responsible at local level and a Marshal-General (currently a woman) is in charge of all.
- Falk's followers have a similar organization, and the two groups respect each other's ways and beliefs.
- Knights and paladins can rise from either group. A paladin of Gird or Falk is granted special gifts by the gods (e.g. the ability to heal and to “call light”), and is expected to lead a life without personal attachments, going to the aid of people wherever the gods (ultimately the “High Lord”) direct.
- Other people, through desire or poverty, follow an equivalent hierarchy of evil deities of various levels. Paks and others will have many encounters with such people and deities.
- The “deed” of the first part's title involves a trial for Paks that is by far the most horrific of these encounters, a trial that occurs near the end of her story in the first part. It is not, repeat not, for young or sensitive readers, but it is a vital (and unexpected) part of the story that will have far-reaching consequences in the second part.
- At the time that the story opens, paladins (who are far from invulnerable) are in short supply...
- A good description of the world and its complex economies and politics will be found here and here. The peoples who inhabit the world are described much more fully here, and their religions and deities here.
- You may want to follow these links while reading the books, as a kind of reference, rather than trying to absorb them all up front!
- They do, however, provide an indication of the scope of this great work.
- It may also help to know that a “cohort” in the Duke's company is a unit of 100 soldiers, although some companies have larger units.
- The unique flavour of these books naturally has to do with the author herself. Among other things, she became a 1st Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps while on active duty, is an experienced paramedic, has degrees in history and biology, and obviously knows everything there is to be known about horses (and mules).
- These books often read like a well-researched historical novel. Politics, economics and personal relationships are at the core of them, whether in village, city, encampment or palace.
- However, no historical novels or epic fantasies that I have read contain the kind of action and adventures taking place here.
- In a very believable medieval setting we get (for example) an escape through enemy-held territory worthy of a fine WWII POW escape story, a jewellery heist with a unique method of getting through solid rock, a tense child-hostage rescue that might have been carried out by a member of the SAS in our world, a lone rearguard action to protect a mountain village in which one of the major characters loses his life, and many others.
- Nor have I read other epic fantasies that have such a realistic depiction of military campaigning, from digging latrine trenches to exactly what it takes to supply a company on the march, from tactics on patrol and the use of terrain to hand signals and ciphers — but all in keeping with the medieval setting.
- On the other hand, there is a kind of “cosiness” about the descriptions of routine life that is reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey (in fact the two authors have co-authored part of an SF trilogy together). The pleasures of eating and drinking in inns and elsewhere, especially after a long time spent in adverse weather conditions, feature often, and day-to-day personal relationships, friendships and jealousies give us a very ground-level, personal and in some ways pedestrian view of the world.
- The arrival of danger and action, often unexpected, has greater impact by contrast.
- Paks is lucky to join the company of Duke Phelan, in which the development and leadership of people - not just their fighting skills, although there are fascinating details there — is of the highest quality.
- These attributes flow down from the Duke himself through his captains and sergeants (some of them women) whose own stories, like his own, will become much more important much later on.
- Such personal development and leadership skills are shown in many forms throughout both parts, and there are many large companies in our own world that could certainly benefit from studying them!
- And finally, the story has much to do with the healing of estrangements (particularly between traditional enemies and between elves and men) and with the liberation of people from evil and oppression.
- All of which is very different from A Song of Ice and Fire (which I enjoyed, by the way, and contrasted its structure with that of The Lord of the Rings here on my Categorian blog).
- More books by Elizabeth Moon...
- See here on my Categorian Blog.
- Pratchett, Terry: Pretty much everything that he has written...
- One of the astonishing things about Terry Pratchett is not only how prolific an author he was (he wrote a book every 6 months or so) but that he maintained and improved the quality of his writing throughout his career, even in his last few books where he was suffering from a form of Alzheimer's.
- His famous Discworld series, for example, seemed to gain in depth with each passing book, becoming (in every sense) seriously funny.
- Click the image below for more of his work!
- I have also made several posts about Sir Terry's work here in my Categorian blog.
- Tolkien, J.R.R.: Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit
- I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1967 when I was a young undergraduate at Oxford, a place with which Tolkien had strong connections. I still have those three volumes, somewhat battered now, red books in green jackets that somehow look (and even smell) just as they should for the story.
- I really wish that I could read these books again for the first time. The sheer depth of background to the story - the language and history of the Elves, for example - immersed me completely and kept me reading more or less night and day.
- This immersion didn't happen immediately. The opening book (there are 6 books in 3 volumes) doesn't really take off until the crucial second chapter (The Shadow of the Past), and then after some excitement runs into a patch of quirkiness to do with Tom Bombadil that really belongs to a slightly different Tolkien universe (the excellent BBC Radio dramatisation and the Peter Jackson movie both leave out this sticky patch for a good reason). I know several people who gave up at this point - I'm really glad that I didn't.
- Once out Tom Bombadil's domain the story returns to "normal" Middle Earth and gathers pace. Then, from almost the start of Book 2, the scope of the story widens out, sort of like a TV screen expanding to a huge cinema screen, and from that point onwards I was well and truly hooked.
- One of the things that makes the story so engaging is that all the grand and high events are seen from the viewpoint of the Hobbits, whose tough, rustic Englishness gives to the story a sense of reality (important in fantasy writing), and with whose viewpoint the mere mortals reading the story can identify.
- I have tried several times to read The Silmarillion,
which provides much of the background and history behind The Lord of the Rings. I have never completed it (although I have
read all of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings), for two reasons:
Firstly, it is a series of fairly dark slices of mythological history, fascinating in their own right but without the same kind of narrative drive that the other book has.
Secondly, and more importantly for me, one of the tremendous qualities of The Lord of the Rings is that the action takes place against a deep backdrop of history and languages, glimpsed often throughout the narrative but never fully seen. In The Silmarillion, there is no backdrop (this is the backdrop) and hence no depth. In a way, it is like walking to the back of a magical stage set and looking the details of the scenery flats. Marvelous though the details of that scenery is, it's a different experience to seeing the production from the seats in the audience.
- The Hobbit, an account of the earlier life of Bilbo and Gandalf, starts off as a children's book. I say "starts off" because, like The Lord of the Rings, it widens in scope and changes character as it goes along, I suspect as a result of Tolkien becoming gripped by his own story and by its possibilities. At the beginning, for instance, Gandalf is a child's idea of a wizard and the dwarves are faintly comic. By the end, we have a full-blown war going on and everything is much more serious, and we are nearly in the same universe that The Lord of the Rings inhabits.
- You will also find some posts on Tolkien topics here in my Categorian blog.
The following is a description of the books that I have read several times, and still occasionally re-read, in spite of knowing the outcome of each plot.
- Collins, Wilkie: The Moonstone
- This is one of the longest, oldest and greatest detective stories in the English language. The story is told by the different characters involved in it, which gives the narrative great variety and depth. While the story has tragic elements, it also has some hilariously funny episodes (involving his wonderful creations of Gabriel Betteridge and Miss Clack).
- Peters, Ellis: Brother Cadfael (Series)
- I greatly enjoy all of these well-known stories of the Benedictine detective. Follow the hyperlink for a wealth of information about Ellis Peters and her many works.
- I have only read one of her George Felse mysteries (set in modern times), A Nice Derangement Of Epitaphs. I now plan to read the others!
- Sayers, Dorothy L.: The Nine Tailors
- This is my favourite of all her Peter Wimsey novels. The images of the bleak Fenland in winter and the brooding presence of the church bells (the "tailors" are the teller-strokes for the dead) add a wonderful atmosphere to a fine detective story (which is also a very fine novel in its own right).
- Sayers, Dorothy L.: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman's Honeymoon
- Of her other books, the ones that I return to most often are the Peter Wimsey novels that feature Harriet Vane (the first three of which were played so superbly by Harriet Walter with Edward Petherbridge in the BBC TV series).
- It has been said that through Harriet Vane, Dorothy Sayers was conducting a love affair with Peter Wimsey, her own creation. Whether or not this is true, it is quite easy to believe when reading these books.
- Francis, Clare: Night Sky
- Set against the background of the French resistance during the Second World War, this book is (in my opinion) one of the finest and most gripping thrillers ever written. The author has the soul of a true adventurer, as is obvious from her background, and it really shows in this book.
- I haven't read all of her other works, but none of the ones that I have read, good as they are, quite match this one.
- You can hear a radio interview with Clare Francis here. For links to radio interviews with other authors, see the top of the right hand panel.
- Monsarrat, Nicholas: The Cruel Sea
- This is a very fine novel of the convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic, and the men who sailed in tiny corvettes to protect the convoys, written by a man who was there.
- Understated and powerful, it describes the enormous demands placed on ordinary men, and how those men rose (or failed to rise) to the fearful challenges that faced them.
- A good review of this novel (in an excellent book review blog) appears here.
- I have always grouped The Cruel Sea in my mind with C.S. Forester's book The Ship, which tells the story of a single critical engagement in the war in the Mediterranean, from the viewpoint of each of many individual men of all stations serving on a destroyer. On a much smaller canvas than "The Cruel Sea", it paints an equally understated and impressive picture of what really goes on behind the official dispatches.
- Shaffer, Mary Ann and Barrows, Annie: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
- The protagonist of this delightful novel, Julie Ashton, is a journalist living after the Second World War, who receives a letter from a complete stranger, a farmer living on the island of Guernsey, seeking help in locating a bookshop that could mail him some of Lamb's writings.
- As they discover a common love of books, Julie is drawn into a growing correspondence with other members of the eponymous wartime society (which turns out to be a quite spurious one invented to deceive the Germans) and learns the remarkable story behind the society's existence.
- The story reminds me somewhat of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, being told as a series of spirited letters and involving a love of books. Its scope is wider, though, with a much larger cast and a much bigger main story, namely the occupation of the island of Guernsey by the Germans in WWII.
- Like most of its readers (who in some way become honorary members of the Society), I fell in love with the characters and didn't want the book to end.
Everyone has his or her own idea of what constitutes holiday reading!
In my case, I often take on holiday several books from my other categories, but this category refers to thrillers and adventure stories by authors such as Dick Francis, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Alistair Maclean and Tom Clancy.
I can recommend pretty much any book by the first three authors.
Alistair Maclean's books became increasingly routine, and his characters more and more "plastic", as he went along, but I occasionally enjoy re-reading The Guns Of Navarone and Fear Is The Key, which for me are two of his best books (of which the first was made into a great movie, and the second into a very forgettable movie).
I greatly enjoyed (and can still occasionally re-read) Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan / John Clark novels, up to but not beyond Executive Orders, which is really the natural climax of the series (and a real masterpiece of story-telling).
- Larsson, Stieg: The Millenium Trilogy: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
- I have rarely enjoyed a thriller so much as the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, of which The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first part. Although it's a trilogy in books, in many ways it is a story in two parts, the second part being told in The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.
- I like the books because they are complex, multi-layered and multi-threaded, weaving together an initial murder mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a biting commentary on aspects of Swedish society (and other societies), a range of fascinating personal relationships and a nail-biting suspense thriller around the emerging story of Lisbeth Salander - the girl with the dragon tattoo. I have read them several times - knowing the end doesn't spoil the books for me. The books contain strong sex and violence (sparsely distributed), but never gratuitously nor in any kind of titillating way.
- "Nordic Noir" has become a general term to describe the English-speaking world's new-found appreciation for the superb crime writing and television productions coming to us from Scandinavia.
- You will find some more excellent "Nordic Noir" here in my Categorian blog.
- O'Donnell, Peter: Modesty Blaise (Series)
- My Dad was a fan of the cartoon strip (which I wasn't), and would have described the books as "first-class hokum", meaning stories that cause the reader to suspend disbelief in the face of some serious improbabilities!
- There is a curiously attractive chemistry and atmosphere about these books, which are rooted firmly in the 1960's and 70's. The invincible heroine and hero - Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin - are carefully-drawn characters, who have romantic attachments (usually short-lived) with several people but not with each other, in spite of their very close relationship in other ways. Willie Garvin would regard a romantic relationship with Modesty as "a liberty". Modesty's own feelings on the subject (never expressed except on one occasion when she believes him dead) are generally kept private.
- They have friends (among them people they have rescued) who are extremely pleasant people, people you would be really happy to spend time with (this fact alone makes these books very different from the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming), and they have enemies who are the exact opposite. Modesty's character and accomplishments make her somewhat intimidating, and give her a somewhat cool aspect, to people who first encounter her. Willie Garvin, a rough-hewn cockney, is a perfect foil for her, with considerable humour and understanding (other than to the bad guys, naturally).
- The first book in the series (Modesty Blaise) is not as good as the ones that follow, perhaps because the author was finding his feet, so to speak. After the first book the stories seem to take on a life of their own (which I regard as a mark of the author's skill).
- One book in the series (Dragon's Claw) I found to be oddly off-colour, and I have never re-read it.
- The Night Of Morningstar is OK but I didn't like as much as the others.
- Cobra Trap is another book of short stories, spanning the whole period of the other books (and further), and the last that Peter O'Donnell wrote. If you can forgive (as I can) the occasional unusual clumsiness of a few passages, e.g. where characters explain the plot using unlikely dialogue, then all of the stories except one are highly enjoyable. The exception is the title story itself, Cobra Trap, which is the last in the book and is set many years after the others. It is intended to put a definite and final end to the stories of Modesty and Willie - if you prefer to leave what happens to them in the future to your imagination then you may want to skip this one story, which isn't badly written but has a very different flavour to the usual one.
- All the other books in the series (Sabre-Tooth, I, Lucifer, A Taste for Death, The Impossible Virgin (one of my favourites), Pieces of Modesty (short stories), The Silver Mistress, Last Day in Limbo, The Xanadu Talisman and Deadman's Handle) I can strongly recommend. They are great fun and contain much gentle, civilized humour amongst all the mayhem.
- By the way, if you get a chance to see the movie Modesty Blaise, starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde - I suggest that you pass it up.
- Smith, Wilbur: The Eye Of The Tiger
- This is simply a thundering good adventure yarn, set in the blue game-fishing waters of the Indian Ocean, complete with treasure hunting and all kinds of deception and skullduggery. One of my favourites.
- I have tried a few of Wilbur Smith's many other books, which don't appeal to me so much (but I can imagine that they would appeal to other people). The next best, for me, is Hungry As The Sea, the first segment of which contains possibly one of the best sustained action sequences at sea ever written, as modern salvage vessels attempt a rescue in Antarctic waters.
What Shall I Read Next?
One of life's little problems is that sinking feeling when you approach the end of a really good book and you haven't got another one lined up...
Luckily, it's easily solved. If you didn't find one here then try some of the highly recommended links (including online radio book programmes) which you will find here in the right hand panel of this page.
When you get there (remember you'll be looking at the right hand side of the page) hover the mouse over each link to read of a summary of what it offers.
What's A Good Place To Buy Books?
There's nothing quite like a good bookshop that you can walk into, and actually riffle through the pages of books that interest you.
However, it seems like increasingly every bookshop on the planet - at least, nearly all the ones that sell second-hand books, and many of the smaller bookshops that sell new books too - are hooking up to online marketplaces where via a website the customer can browse all those shops at once.
The first such website that I knew about was the Canada-based Advanced Book Exchange. If you go there and you are not a U.S. customer, then go to the bottom of the home page where it says AbeBooks International and you can select a different country. You will still be able to browse bookshops from all over the world, but your starting point will be that much closer to home.
However, AbeBooks (as of April 2011) has one disadvantage, which is that they insist that the bookseller charges you the full postage cost for each book even if you order more than one at the same time from the shop (however they told me that you can search for books that they offer with free shipping if you go here (main site) or here (UK)).
If this annoys you (and even if it doesn't) check out the UK-based AwesomeBooks, which works differently but offers a very large number of new and second-hand books, and currently offers free shipping to the UK (any number of books) and also, for 2 books or more, to North America and Western Europe. This may change in the future but their policy is to keep shipping costs to a minimum.
Another reason for considering them is this statement that they make:
"Each year, over 15 million books travel through our warehouse from our suppliers. Some we list for sale, some we have to recycle because their condition is not good enough for resale and some we take home to read (...when the boss is not looking). Ultimately though, there are literally hundreds of thousands of books which are surplus to requirements by the time we are done with them, but perfectly good for the educational content or just plain entertainment they might provide. At AwesomeBooks, we think this "power" we have in our hands deserves to be put to good use. We currently sort through our surplus stock and break it down for the various charitable partners we work with. Whether they need books for school libraries in Pakistan, for community libraries in Ghana or for charity raffles at Hospice fundraisers in the UK - we send books free of charge to these organisations so they can put our books to good use."
And then, of course, there is the whole business of eBooks. See below!
Finally, you might want to check out the links that I provide here in the right-hand panel of this page.
Ebooks and the Kindle
At Christmas 2011 more than a million Brits aquired a Kindle, and I was one of them. Like many other people I bought it thinking that it would be great for travelling and holidays - but having had it for a short while, I am already preferring it for reading any book that is mostly plain text.
This is my Kindle, the new simple Wi-Fi-only version that retails for £89 in the UK ($79 in the USA!), in the leather folder that my daughter bought me to go with it.
The Page Down button is the long, thin strip on each side (seen clearer on the right). The Page Up button, used less often, is the shorter thin strip above it. The small buttons around the 5-way switch are Back, Keyboard, Menu and Home.
The screen is showing one of the randomly-selected graphic screensavers displayed when the Kindle is asleep - its normal "off" state. The display uses virtually no power except when you change the display. You don't need to turn the Kindle off (except on an aircraft), or even put it to sleep (though you can) - you just put it down or away as you would a book, and pick it up later. If you stop reading, the Kindle will soon put up a screensaver like this and sleep, but even if it didn't the display would consume virtually no power. When you wake up the Kindle it returns you to what you were looking at before.
The photograph was taken when illuminated by our super-bright Klarstein sunlight therapy lamp (there you go, two recommendations for the price of one!).
The pages displayed on the Kindle really are as clear as print on a paper page (even clearer, IMO). As with a real book, the brighter the light, the easier it is to read.
One of the joys of a Kindle is the 36,000+ free eBooks available from Project Gutenberg, where books out of copyright are constantly being digitized and added by volunteers (they would appreciate a donation). The current set of authors is listed here. You can get free ebooks elsewhere, including from the Kindle store, and you can even put your own electronic documents on the Kindle (see below).
You can download any of these free ebooks to your computer, and then email it as an attachment to your special Kindle email address. The next time you connect to Wi-Fi it will usually appear on your Kindle in less than a minute (unless you have a slow connection). If you have several ebooks (or your own documents) on your computer then you can send them all in one email as separate attachments. You don't need a subject or any other text in the email (unless your email program insists, in which case anything will do).
You can also transfer the downloaded file straight to your Kindle via the supplied USB lead - but Windows 7 users may have a problem (see below).
Buying eBooks from the Kindle eBook Store (cheaper than real books, with a few silly and presumably short-lived exceptions, often cheaper than second-hand books) just requires you to be in range of a Wi-Fi point, if you do it from the Kindle (I prefer to do it via the web site from my computer). It's very fast (1 minute max for purchase and download on my modest connection), and you can select "Try it free" which will download a sample of the book (the first chapter in the ones I have tried so far) which you can read at your leisure.
You can store a ridiculous number of ebooks (a few thousand) on your Kindle - a single image on a modern digital camera takes up more memory than at least 10 full-length novels - but you don't have to, since anything you store on your Kindle is automatically backed up on Amazon's "cloud" (cloud storage for stuff you didn't buy from Amazon is currently limited to 5GB, but that's at least 5,000 items and you can back-up these yourself anyway). You can delete an ebook or document from your Kindle and get it back again any time. If you lose your Kindle, you haven't lost your library!
You can organise your books into "Collections" (entirely invented by you) like Fiction, Classics, Poetry, Sci-Fi, Reference etc. and a book can appear in more than one collection. On your "home page" you then see only your collection names and any ebooks that aren't in any collection yet.
You can be reading many books at once (well, you know what I mean), and the default is that if you open one, you will be sent to the last page read - but you can find places in an ebook in all the ways that you would expect from electronic text.
The UK Kindle arrives with the Oxford English Dictionary on board, and there will also be dictionaries in currently six other languages (including American) in your "cloud" if you want them. You can look up a dictionary definition for words found in a book just by moving the cursor (normally invisible).
You can highlight or annotate any book or document (an example here), although this version of the Kindle, with a soft keyboard, would probably make writing long notes too tedious.
FWIW, here are some tips from my own early use:
- Buy the leather case from Amazon at the same time as the Kindle. Unlike other Kindle wallets I have seen people use, this one is very well made, lies flat open or shut, and makes this small device much easier to handle.
- Do NOT buy the hugely over-priced Kindle USB charger. Your Kindle can be recharged from a computer via the supplied USB lead. Some Windows 7 users (me included) have had problems with the Plug & Play USB driver - in which case any cheap USB charger works fine. Just plug it into the wall, and plug one end of the supplied USB lead into it - it should charge an empty battery in less than 4 hours. You will probably only need to do this about once a month unless you connect to the Wi-Fi a lot.
- You can put your own documents on the Kindle, e.g. for notes you want to carry around. If you use the free OpenOffice Writer, you can convert documents from almost any source, including Word documents and documents written using Writer itself, into PDF, which displays well on the Kindle. It helps if you use a font size around 22pt for documents you intend to put on the Kindle, although you can always zoom in on smaller text.
- When using the soft keyboard, you can use the Page Up and Page Down buttons on each side (see the photo) to move between the various alternative keyboards (upper case, lower case etc.)... or in other words, don't forget to read the Kindle's User Guide, it will save time later!
As this article says, Christmas 2011 marked a fundamental shift in the way we buy and read books, especially paperback novels. In the new Kindle we finally have a light, portable electronic device that is as good as or better than paper and which is sensibly priced (especially if you live in the USA, where electronic products have always been much cheaper than in the UK).
The "real book" will not disappear overnight - and books that offer more than just words will be relatively unaffected. Price wars are sure to break out, both for real books and for ebooks. And while booksellers will have to use considerable ingenuity to survive this shift, there is no doubt about one thing: the Kindle is encouraging people to read more.
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