Tag Archives: books

Book Review: Servant of the Underworld


Kind of.

Actually I’ve read six books so far this year. Technically five and a half. But whatever. Because of last year’s Y I NO READ ANY MORE whine, I’ve challenged myself to read 24 books this year (stopped short of a one-a-week challenge because I know myself). I’m doing well so far. Now my book queue is only 87 books long! D:

Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood, #1)Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF. Sorry.

Strike one:

“The hunger in his eyes was palpable”

Unless you usually gauge mood by poking people in the eye then no, it wasn’t. Also when I tweeted it I had several people assume I was reading crappy erotica. That is not a good sign.

Strike two:

“Oh,” giggled another poorly-developed female character, “politics! I’m so glad I’m a woman and don’t have to think about that.”

Strike three:

Actually, there was no specific strike three. I just realised that I didn’t care any more. I was 44% of the way through, the main character had just had an encounter with a powerful divinity, everything was going horribly wrong… and I was completely cold.

I found the main character entirely unsympathetic. He does not converse, he bickers. He is hung up on his Parents’ Disapproval Of His Life Choices which is fine, everyone needs a backstory, but after the fifth flashback it began to get a bit tiresome. His only flaw (apart from being really annoying) is being Too Noble, as he refuses all help to Stop Any More People Getting Hurt. People still get hurt. He gets hurt, but he Nobly Struggles On Through The Pain. Ugh.

I just didn’t like him. And the focus is so heavily on him and what he thinks and what he understands of the situation around him that I just couldn’t bear it any more. In this case, the first-person narrative was stifling; I wanted to get more of a feel for the landscape and culture in which the story is set, instead of being trapped inside the brain of a single man. I wanted to know more about the other characters, to know why I should care about them, why the mystery needed to be solved. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

So, sorry. Did not finish. Interesting premise, but executed in a way that completely lost me.

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FO Friday: A BOOK

YEAH I KNOW I was whining only yesterday about not reading. But then I finished one. Here is a review, as posted in GoodReads yesterday.

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt, #1)Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this up during one of the Kindle sales, intrigued by the idea of a fantasy adventure involving steam-punk bug-people. Who wouldn’t be? The premise is interesting; a vast, sweeping tale of empire-building and resistance, of friends and enemies, of politics and battles. And bug-people. And goggles.

The execution, however, is poor. From trailing prepositions to ugly phrasing, poor characterisation to menace-drained scenes, the whole thing read more like a set of stage directions than a novel. It felt like I was constantly battling the text in order to extract the meaning.

Nothing is left unsaid. Almost all action is reported through the eyes of a chosen character who then sees, hears, and feels everything (i.e. ‘he felt the ground shake’ rather than ‘the ground shook’), which renders the action less immediate, less exciting. If the author thinks another character will have an interesting thought, he has no qualms in slipping straight over and letting them have that thought, regardless of how entrenched we are in the mind of the main protagonist. They sense emotions in other characters even when the other characters are hiding said emotions. At one point a character ‘wonders if she imagined she saw respect’ in another character’s eyes and I had to close the book and have a little lie down.

As with many things in this book, I understood what the author was getting at but the inelegance of the phrasing made me want to cry.

The only flaw of good characters is that they are just too good – too self-effacing, too loyal – and of ‘bad’ characters that they are not bad enough. Romantic relationships are reduced to playground flirtations, friendships to jealousy-tinged arrangements of convenience. I don’t know what any of the characters are *like*. I know what they did, what they saw, what they understood; but I dont know what they look like except for a few dislocated physical characteristics (hair colour, location of spines).

The action travels quite nicely from one place to another, with some nice descriptions of landscape and architecture. Action scenes are described in loving detail, the body count high as any daft action movie, the gore tastefully low. Characters get into terrible situations but are then conveniently released before the author has to hurt them. None of these averted crises have any lasting effect on the character in question.

I don’t want to be too damning, because I admire the vision behind this book. I’m told its the first in a series of ten, with seven or eight already written. Given my trouble with sticking to one plot for a mere 50,000 words, I have to doff my cap. And it was interesting enough for me to finish, which is more than I can say for some things I’ve read. But the execution is poor enough that I couldn’t even read the bonus short stories at the end.

Summary: great vision, great world-building, but superficial characterisation and a writing style like fingernails down a chalkboard. 2/5.

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Donning my feminist tiara, I also have some other comments. Just some little things that struck me as interesting – not as sticks with which to hit the author, but as interpretations of the text. Spoiler, NSFW, and I guess probably trigger alert.

  • a woman who enjoys the sexing is ‘excused’ from being termed a slut because ‘she didn’t sleep with all of them, of course’. Because, as we all know, sluts are bad, and she is a ‘good’ character
  • a woman having sex in a situation which is at best coerced, is stated very, very carefully to have consented and possibly instigated
  • a woman escapes rape purely because she happens to have had a weapon sneaked into a supposedly sealed room
  • a woman escapes rape purely because the man can’t get it up
  • a woman escapes torture purely because the guy threatening it had something else to do
  • a male character goes off in a huff after being friendzoned by a woman who ‘thinks of him as a brother’ because he has given her absolutely no indication of any romantic interest at all
  • a woman gets her ‘art’ only after receiving penis.

I don’t know if I have any specific comments on these things. OK maybe one at least. I felt the treatment of rape and torture were cowardly, at best. If you don’t want to glorify it, fine. But don’t toy with it. Don’t give convenient exits for the characters you like while silently throwing the rest of your population (female and male) under the bus.

I also thought there was a very interesting undercurrent of racism between the insect-kin that was mostly unexplored. Halfbreeds are derided, publicly disdained, but there seems to be absolutely no taboo about sex between species/races/kin/whatever.

Overthinking: I am doing it. But I’m a classicist. That’s what we do best.

Why am I not reading?

One of my biggest takeaways from NaNoWriMo this year was that I really need to read more books. As I said before, it’s hard to put together a decent scene when the only thing you read are forum posts and animal memes.

Yes, Incredulous Owl or what the hell ever bird you actually are. Really.

It’s been bothering me for a while. At the beginning of the year, I set myself a goal of reading more books than last year, in which I tallied a measly 15 books read. So far this year, I’ve read seven. Seven. It’s December. I suck at this.

I’ve got a Kindle, man. A computer full of ebooks and multiple even more devices that can read them. We have custom-built bookshelves in the living room. Custom-built. And I’m not bloody reading.

I’ve been trying to puzzle this out and I think I’ve established the main reasons.

    1. THE INTERNET. Speaks for itself.
    2. No good armchair. We don’t even own one; we have a sofa bed (no armrests), an uncomfortable little sofa, and a couple of futons. I just don’t have anywhere to do this:

  1. Reality guilt. When I read, I’m gone. Lost to the world. I have a constant nagging sensation that I should be doing something, or that if I stop refreshing my favourite fast-paced forum, I will miss something interesting and regret it later.
  2. Interruptions. I don’t deal well with them. If I’m focusing on something and my attention is drawn away, it takes me a while to return to reality, and I feel a fleeting and entirely irrational burst of rage. It’s quite disconcerting, and it’s definitely one reason why I avoid immersion.

So as long as I step away from the computer, stack up the cushions just so on the sofa, and schedule some time to say BYEBYE to the world, I should be fine, and more books will be devoured.

As for the last point, well. Besides gagging my other half, I don’t really know what to do about that. Ideas?

books vs ebooks vs cookbooks

I spotted this article recently – “Cookbooks Will Go Extinct One Day and That’s OK.” Agree or Disagree? – and it got me thinking; I don’t think I’ve done a post about the whole ebook vs paper book thing despite having quite strong feelings on the subject.

My general stance is that ebooks are fantastic and in most cases, they are a perfectly acceptable substitute for paper. I read a physical book recently and I can honestly say that the smell of the paper and its texture under my fingertips never once crossed my mind. I was kinda busy reading the words. For me, it’s just as magical an experience to feel rubberized plastic in my hand and click a button every thirty seconds. It’s super-magical that I can click a button and suddenly, new book!

(wireless technology is like magic to me. I understand the science but ZOMG INVISIBLE INFORMATION)

But I don’t agree with the opinion that ebooks will completely replace paper books because I find that idea too… fanciful. The arguments to support this tend to:

  1. ignore economics – not everyone can afford a reader, a tablet, a smartphone. Hell, not everyone can afford physical books. It’s going to take more than a few years to solve world poverty.
  2. ignore environmental concerns – I know paper isn’t the most amazing thing, environmentally speaking, but the plastics and metals that would go into 7 billion e-readers (or other devices) would make quite the dent in our resources.
  3. assume the use of technology/code that doesn’t exist yet – too often when I say ‘but I can’t do x in an ebook’ I’m answered by a hand wave and the response ‘oh but technology will move on’. That’s probably true, but (imo) a lazy argument.

And finally, I just don’t think that ebooks add enough to the experience for them to supersede physical books. Sure, they do have little quality of life things like being able to look up words without reaching for a dictionary, and ways to mark the text without defacing the book. But… dictionaries and post-it notes still exist. I’m reminded of the dishwasher vs washing up by hand debate.

E-cookbooks, I’ve decided, are less useful than paper ones. I can’t stick my finger in one page while flipping between two others to work out which recipe I want to make. I can’t scrawl in the margins. Dropping food on it is a potential disaster instead of added character. I barely remember I own the books because I can’t see them on the shelf.

However; the article I linked above did point out one thing that changed my perspective a little. Apps. Apps that allow you to search by ingredient, by multiple ingredients, ones that let you build shopping lists and meal plans – *those* are valuable additions to a recipe book. It struck me that it’s actually e-cookbooks that are outdated; they’re the minidisc of the world of books. A stepping stone on the way to a more useful interpretation of the recipe book.

So there you go; I’m a step closer to accepting point 3, as I can see a direction for technology to go to improve the ebook experience. But I’m still standing between the wrecking ball and the library, and I’m not shifting yet.

How do you feel about this? Do you think I’m missing the point of the ‘ebooks are the future’ argument? Any other genres of books that you think can’t be effectively replicated in ebook form?

The Last Man

I’m on an accidental break from knitting at the moment, as I left for a weekend away without packing any knitting materials at all. No, I wasn’t feeling very well. So in the absence of teh yarnz, I bring you a little book review.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man tells the story of Lionel Verney, last remaining member of the human race after a particularly virulent plague scourges the planet. OOPS SPOILER… kidding. The book was published in 1826, and I think the name should be a fair indicator of the subject matter.

The events themselves are set far in the future, concluding in 2100. The futurism is subtle; the occasional balloon flits over the horizon, but otherwise, this is very much a 19th century period piece. No, not remotely steampunk.

The text itself is dense with literary references, many of them classical. I found myself fascinated by the way a single line could unpack an entire play, and give a different or more profound insight into the events. AKA, I’m a nerd. 😀 It was definitely worth looking up most of the quotes – curiously, the version I was reading linked some of them, but not all. Google helped.

It’s a slow starter, which threatened to disappoint after a substantial period devoted to the pre-apocalyptic life of the main characters. But this slow, steady buildup gives a depth to those characters that might otherwise be lost to their various fates with little regret. Once the action gets going – and yes, there were some ghoulish chants of ‘come on plague, you can do it’ – it really opens up into an interesting and thoughtful exploration of the reaction to apocalypse and solitude.

Here’s a Project Gutenberg link, should you wish to give it a go.

Internets meets literature. Confusion ensues.

Some recent book reviews spotted on my Shelfari home page:

  • The Da Vinci Code: its really gud n intresting novel….
  • Dracula (Penguin Popular Classics): guess wut, I’m romainian…
  • Fahrenheit 451: Classic book regarding the role that books play in our society.

Ye. Gods. I’m not sure which of the three I want to punch the most. Though all pale into insignificance next to this gem:

  • Northern Lights (His Dark Materials): i hav never herd of the author…shud i reed it???

I would be surprised if you COULD read anything, let alone should. My zombie Jesus on a plank of wood, what is the world coming to when a site dedicated to reading and literature is populated by grammarless arseclowns. Ack.

A blow has been struck to LibraryThing.

Some time ago I posted about a new site I had found for cataloguing one’s book collection. This was LibraryThing, and very nice it was too. Around the same time, I also found a similar site called Shelfari, which did so similar a job it didn’t really merit a mention.

Well, no more.

It did already have a bit of an advantage in that there’s no limit to the number of books you can add. But that’s not where it stops now. At some point in the recent past, Shelfari has had an excellent update. It now allows you (even encourages you) to differentiate between books you’ve read and books you own, and not just through tags. You get a whole separate shelf for books you own. This, as my books now come to me through Bookmooch (and leave the same way), is a Good Thing. Now, if I so wished I could go back through the mists of time adding all the books I’ve read since my childhood… But I won’t be doing that. I don’t have the patience to go through adding all the Point Horror books I read as a wannabe-goth teenager. And imagine the recommendations… *shudder*.

Actually, that brings me to the main disadvantage. Having read (and fortunately lost my copy of) the Da Vinci Code, I now have to bear recommendations and notes and comments on the bloody thing every time I log in. I don’t care if user x thinks the book was better than the film. Frankly, that makes me scared to consider the quality of the film considering how shite the book was. There should be a filtering system like last.fm’s banning.

P.S. if you fancy joining and saying hello… www.shelfari.com/careless

Plant a tree for every book you read.

Eco-Libris: Plant a tree for every book you read

Pay this Eco-Libris money; they get trees planted and you get stickers to put on each of your books to show how green you are. And they plant extra trees for your money to take into account the fact that not all planted trees make it.

An interesting idea. Given a little more reading time I could probably create a small forest. How cool would that be… a lifetime’s reading expressed through the medium of wildlife. Insects (representing newspapers) flutter through the trees, the sun shines dappled on the bed of dead leaves and mould (the Daily Mail), while a dewy-eyed doe…

I wore out that metaphor before I even finished it. Soz. 🙂

NOW I understand why they do it.

Emo kids, that is, and all the photos of themselves.

My fringe is (finally) almost at the point of growing out. One side is long enough to tuck behind my ear; the other is not. So today I resorted to hairgrips and a ton of hairspray to anchor these stray locks to the side of my face.

I’ve never worn quite such a… solid style. Sure, I’ve enjoyed the crunch that hairspray gives, but never this much. Despite this, I became completely paranoid. I fiddle with my hair a lot during the average day, so being prevented from doing this was quite stressful. The one time I absent-mindedly touched my head and dislodged a hairgrip I found myself dashing out to the ladies’ to check I’d put it back in properly. I felt I couldn’t move my head too quickly, in case it messed up the barnet. On the way to work, I found myself holding my breath every time a breeze blew in case it all went wrong.

On the other hand, it did make my hair lovely and shiny (and crispy), and I credit it for making me a lot more efficient and well-behaved at work. By 10 o’clock I’d taken ownership of a query and phoned (!) Switzerland (!) to give some bad news to (!) a Very Important Customer (!). The (!)s are to emphasize how unlike me this is. Trust me. If I can palm any of the above (!)s off onto anyone else I’ll do it.

Anyway, the title of this post is significant as I found myself so proud of my hair in its primped state that I had to take a picture of it.

See? Lovey and shiny. So shiny I had a number of panics at what looked like more grey hairs, which were (fortunately) false alarms.

In other news:

– I became preoccupied this morning with why anyone thought the name ‘old spice’ would make a good brand name, and why it then did.
– I just read a couple of books by C. J. Sansom (Dissolution and Dark Fire), both of which are very good and I’d recommend them to anyone.
– From these books I’ve gained a new and unexpected interest in Tudor history. So if anyone knows any good narrative histories of the period feel free to recommend them to me.
– I just started reading another book by Tom Holland (The Sleeper in the Sands) and am already pained by how arresting and wonderful it is.
– Last night, for the second time in my life, a recipient of my cooking ended up licking the crockery clean. GET IN! 😀

Umm… it’s supposed to be about Persia. Isn’t it?

So I’ve been reading ‘Persian Fire’ by Tom Holland. The first couple of chapters were a bit shaky, nothing like the smooth, engaging read of ‘Rubicon’ – I was concerned. It all seemed a bit higgledy-piggledy, and I was finding it difficult to follow. In fact, it reminded me of the final chapter of Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, where his narrative breaks down a little and he seems to keep distracting himself.

Luckily, the crisis passed, he’s hit his stride now. Ironically, it’s in a section which isn’t even about the Persians. But I can’t fault his language –

“There, where they might no longer shame the city that had bred them, the weak and deformed would be slung into the depths of the chasm, condemned eternally to its tenebrous oblivion.”

I found myself reading that passage a few times, drinking it all in. It’s such a dramatic and redolent way of describing the ditch into which the Spartans chucked their disabled or funny-looking kids. Also –

“That the Athenians were content to ascribe their origins of their city to a discarded toss-rag speaks eloquently of the significance that the myth possessed for them.”

It’s a wonderful way of expressing a concern that I’ve always had. For the uninitiated, Hephaistus (crippled blacksmith god) lusted after his sister, Athena (warrior goddess). One day, he tried to grab a hold – she pushed him away but not before he got so excited that he came on her. She wipes it off with a scrap of wool, drops it down to earth where it fertilises the plains of Attica, which subsequently give birth to Erechtheus (some kind of dinosaur, see below) which she set up on what would be the Acropolis in Athens.

Aside: with stories like that, can anyone still wonder why I studied Classics?

I did learn something interesting, actually. Archaeology and palaeontology may not really have been known as a subject until recent times, but that doesn’t mean stuff wasn’t being found. According to Holland, the Spartans used to assert their status by digging up fossils of Pleistocene mammoths and passing them off as the bones of ancient heroes. And that Erectheus thingie is described as a man with a snake’s tail. Totally insane on the face of it, but sounds awfully dinosaur-shaped to me. Who’s to say that the myth didn’t spring from the discovery of a dinosaur fossil? How else are they to interpret such a ludicrous body shape other than to decide that the gods had something to do with it?

Fascinating stuff. Ok, Tom, I was unsure about this book, but I’m hooked now. Bring on Xerxes.