How I Review Books

Books can be looked at from many points of view. My one most strenous belief is that when I talk about books, you should not hear the plot in too great a detail (unless the author intends the ending to be known before the book begins). Hence, I rarely comment on plot devices or any story development as I feel I could be shortchanging the reader of the review.

So, I have to look (and like looking in any case) at the other aspects of the book instead. One of these is the writing — very important indeed for me, and I hope for most people, but I need to feel comfortable reading the book. It should not feel forced (again, unless that is the intent), and it should feel good. I should get the sense that the author enjoyed writing it, and if their words are put to paper with such skill that I lose myself in their world, even better.

Part of the above is how well the characters come out. I think I here quite often contradict what some other people say, or at least when I have compared reviews on Goodreads it is quite obvious that characters I liked very much were considered incomplete by others and vice versa. I cannot quite explain it, except perhaps I look for the establishment of the character in something more than the written person. They must feel consistent throughout, and they must feel logical. They must have culture (if that is their background), and they must act as if they belong to wherever they are from.

The above is not always the case. However, I have also noted a lot of people have preference with respect to how much text is descriptive vs dialogue (say Tolkien vs Asimov for an easy one here). I think both of these can be similarly splendid, but they must be appreciated for what they are and how they are. The being of Asimov’s characters will come through their words, while Tolkien’s characters get constructed perhaps even before they say their first sentence. That is the difference between various authors.

Next, I am always partial to an interesting story which is interlaced with enough background for it to feel real. This includes an aspect which is not directly related with either of the above, but which is indirectly connected to both of them: there should be some wisdom in the book. No matter what form or method it takes to come across, either the narrator or a character, whether or not it is picked up on and used or not.

But, lastly, and most importantly, the writing must be good enough for me to feel what is going on. This I’d term as emotion. And, indeed, in my reviews I often go with whether something feels right or wrong and what other emotions the story created. How the characters felt and whether they were right is another aspect. This, for me, that a book feels a certain way, is maybe my own classification, but very useful in the sense that if I am feeling a certain way it is quite nice to pick up a book which complements it. There is, after all, no point in reading a fact-oriented history (as opposed to a story-oriented) when looking for amusement or philosophy, or looking for sarcasm from high fantasy.

The above is not perhaps the most perfect description I could give, but I know that my book recommendations follow this. I know my friends well enough and try to recommend books to them if what I felt in that book seems to match what that friend is like. Sometimes I am wrong, sometimes not. Nonetheless, I have always taken great care if I recommend something (or, at least, I would like to think so).

And, I hope, that derives from me considering more than just the plot. For, indeed, the plot is just the first glazing on the house that is the book, and that is also why I nearly always recommend picking an old book up after years have passed to read it anew.

Review: Stormlord Rising

Stormlord Rising
Stormlord Rising by Glenda Larke
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Good stories poorly written seem to be a bit of a theme as of late. The story here, indeed, keeps on being interesting. The plot is overall a bit more innovative than the first book, which is only good. Indeed, the author also seems to have slightly given up on her tendency to feature every plot twist fifty pages ahead, settling mostly for about ten or five in this volume. One can only hope that this entirely disappears in the next book.

However, even with the above in mind, the story is weighed down by a lot of problems. The main one of these would be, for me, the number of contradictions in the world the story takes place in. The religious systems of the various factions are an example of this, but there are many others: the “‘Baster” accent is another one of the very annoying things, where an entire race (nation? faction?) is differentiated by the fact they use a single tense wrong and always say “Ye” instead of “You”. I mean… surely, the author could have thought of something more? Something imaginative perhaps?

The characters are likewise shallow and meaningless. Ryka’s ridiculous adventures strain my patience with the number of u-turns she goes through, especially with every fourth thought of hers being the same; Davim and his successor are fools, having no grasp of strategy or planning; Tarquar is ‘evil’ because he is bored (what a jolly good reason!); Terelle’s thoughts are articulated as if she was five; etc. The only person with a modicum of moral complexity is our stormlord, who is thereby also rendered incapable of acting. Overall, the only character who has managed to maintain being interesting is Iani.

I will only add here that I will read the third book, more because of I don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen rather than looking forward to the book, but that’s that.

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‘Stargate SG-1’ and ‘Stargate Atlantis’

Having just recently watched the full Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, I cannot emphasise enough how good I think these series are. There are plenty of weak episodes but to keep the overall story and characters so good over a total of 15 seasons is a remarkable achievement.

This time I revisited plenty of episodes I barely remembered which was a very welcome distraction. There are some episodes which I have seen dozens of times, but especially SG-1’s season 10 and the later seasons of Atlantis are less well known to me.

What did irk me this time round was the weird nature of the moral compass of John Sheppard. Also, looking at the decisions the frontline teams make in general there are plenty of doubtful ideas that come through their minds. In some ways, it all feels very conceited, but I guess that is because it is. What can one do… The good episodes are still good.

This overall took me a lot longer than half a year, I would think, and was only helped along by the virtue of dinners that extend into the late evening. I was rarely enthralled enough to divert my full attention to the series, but that is perhaps what it’s really good at: some scenes are mindblowing and others are good background. Just like life.

Review: Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian's Wall
Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall by Nic Fields
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A comprehensive review of the Roman fortifications of the first two centuries in the area to the north of Hadrian’s wall. I was impressed by the plentiful tables, totalling not only the benefits and drawbacks of the wall but also it’s construction plan, manhours spent, garrison sizes, etc. Overall, this review stands out as a very brief but strong introduction to Rome in Scotland.

What I found missing was the political context. Though the Severian re-expansion into the north is mentioned, barely half a sentence touches on it. The Antonine and Flavian periods are covered in far greater detail, and I think if the book had restricted itself to the pre-Severian period in what it covered, it would have achieved it’s goals superbly.

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Review: Marlborough

Marlborough
Marlborough by Angus Konstam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like the Osprey Command’s concise take on describing everything important. It works well, even ignoring some of the detail that has been lost, to give a broad overview. Having read Chandler’s ‘Marlborough as a Military Commander‘ before, not much here came as a surprise but rather renewed my memory in useful ways.

I also enjoy the biographies of the opposing generals as Osprey produces them. I think quite a few regular narrative biographies forget that bit, and it’s a relief Osprey insists on it. At the same time, the diplomatic aspect of Marlborough is mostly ignored here but one must accept that Osprey is a military history publishing house.

And, lastly, it was reading about Marlborough, remembering back to my visit of the Blenheim Palace, and the gracious feeling of the nation one can sense on that site. Perhaps Marlborough did not quite save Britain but he humbled France and saved the Dutch from a defeat they would have encountered under most different leaders. As a quick introduction, well worth it.

My only other major comment is that though in works on Marlborough the Lines of Ne Plus Ultra (though if I remember right, Chandler named them Non Plus Ultra) are mentioned, no one actually describes this system of fortifications in detail. I feel, for a place with such an imposing name, that is a pity.

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Review: The Last 60 Minutes

The Last 60 Minutes
The Last 60 Minutes by David McCrae
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am happy that one of the first chapters of this book notes the following: ‘I would think nothing of polishing off half a bottle of rum while watching a film.’ I am happy because I thought nothing of polishing off half a bottle of a delightful herb liqueur to help me through this book. No task half-done, no job half-finished.

Now, to begin with: Please, anyone out there, don’t hire anyone else as your “life coach”. These things do not exist. Life is the coach if anyone is, and to pretend that someone else can tell you what will be valuable in your life is as bad a gamble than the Athenians took at Syracuse. Could have gone either way, you say? That’s true, but it went south. Deep south.

If you want to feel happier or more pensive, read Kahlil Gibran or Muhammad Iqbal or Hermann Hesse. Read something, listen to someone, watch a new film. But when I say read something, I possibly mean something other than this book, and I will outline a few reasons below.

Firstly, books like this suffer greatly for getting their facts wrong, like the comment on Churchill being elected Prime Minister in ’40. If we’re meant to be helping ourselves, how about the author taking the time to help himself craft a credible argument and not a soundbite?

Next, I was slightly uneasy after the author mentioned that he thinks the Sun rises to bring light into his life. I mean, it might. But also, it might not. I think the latter is a bit more likely, perhaps because of a) those seven billion people the author also mentions in the book, but, more likely, b) as it has done it for hundreds of millions of years and will keep on doing so for hundreds of millions of years (unless we as the “extremely capable” humans do something very clever).

And… I mean… Goodness… The author also entirely misunderstood Tolkien’s creation. Elves, “immortal and perfect”? I wonder what the poor souls who died in the Kinslayings thought of that. Or, of their best and most wonderful being the only one of their kind to actually die? Not to mention that the Valar also created the Dwarves, Ents, Trolls, Orcs, etc, but I guess these didn’t fit into the picture the author was trying to get across here. “Immortal and perfect” or “mortal and imperfect”. It’s never that easy, mate.

At least I created something with this review, and in light of the author’s words in the book, that’s the most important thing I could have done today. Isn’t that just dandy?

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Review: Babylon’s Ashes

Babylon's Ashes
Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this is the Expanse I have been waiting for. The novel is strong throughout and it is more humane, maybe by virtue of focussing not just on three or four people but on a myriad of characters with their very own hopes and wishes.

I have missed out on the novellas to be fair — excepting the Anderson Station one — so I may know less about the backstory than I should, but I wanted to keep on going with the main story, and I am happy I did. I may not like the ending here — and I do as it feels logical — but it is a partial ending. We know things are going to get better, we know things are going to get worse. It’s a good place to stop.

Although some of the things in the books felt out of character. Maybe it could have been the stress these people were feeling; maybe I am reading them slightly wrong. I also feel that Mars is getting the least good end of the stick, but that’s probably for a good reason (and you can find this one out on your own).

Lastly, I would just stress again the humanity of this book. It feels right. People do righteous things by themselves and they either work out or they don’t. People agree to work together or they don’t. But everything keeps on going, just as it always does.

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Quoting Ancient Egyptians

I’ve come to consider again two quotes which relate to Ancient Egypt. I learned about these from an anthology of Ancient Egypt I read recently, and noticed these again when I thought about the post I made earlier today on continuing to write (actively).

Without further ado:

Study writings and commit them to memory; then all your words will be effective.

— ‘The Teaching of Ani’

 

Man perishes; his corpse turns to dust; all his relatives pass
away. But writings make him remembered. . .

— ‘Be a Writer’

Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games
Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find the Expanse a thrilling series because of the topics it manages to consider as it goes through the various episodes. This episode here was more about individual people and their relations than the previous books, and the book here manages these topics in a more straightforward manner than previously.

I quite appreciated the move to use the crew of the Rocinante as the POV sources. This created a better atmosphere than some of the previous options, though it was obviously also pleasant to see the return of characters such as Bobby and Chrisjen even if we did not see the situation from their POV.

I am uncertain about some of the actions here though and their overall motive. I don’t want to say too much about this in case people read this review before reading the book, but things look very short-sighted. We’ll see, I guess, we’ll see… And carry on reading…

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Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn
Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

2.5 really, but I felt that a “3” would be overrating it.

See I read this and wondered, had the authors read ‘The Great North Road’. As both seem to have been published at nearly the same time, I’d say not. And yet, the first half of the book (or more) reads like a poorer copy of that book and that is because Mr Hamilton writes better crime sci-fi.

Neither did I really find the mysteries on the planet compelling — and that’s mostly because even though the authors note a lot of secrets they don’t really come close to even a basic description of what’s going on, and I feel that’s hurting the series as it is.

Lastly, I think that the choice of characters the authors have chosen to represent Sol and everything else is getting pretty bland, having noticed some themes arise. I’ll see whether these still hold true in the next installment (hopefully not) but can’t note really before then. Of the people previously mentioned in the universe, the one actually interesting (and new!) character for most sci-fi readers isn’t covered in anything more than a paragraph (view spoiler).

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