Land of Mist and Snow, by Debra Doyle

March 30, 2011 at 12:44 (Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

3/10

The most interesting part of this mostly bleak novel was the decision to completely abandon omniscient third person narration with, if the reader needed to know something important to the story (or not, as the case occasionally was), attention being directed to another narrative. At times it seemed like at least six different characters were trying to tell the story. The bold choices in narrative are really the only thing to draw a prospective reader, and to her credit Doyle does a passable job at keeping things straight, although the legion of narrators ended up as interesting, mostly distracting, and mostly distracting (sic). This book claims to be an “alternate history”, which is about as accurate as calling The Flintstones alternate history, and such dishonesty will hardly endear Doyle to readers who took this boast seriously. Extremely patient historians aside, this book can only really appeal to the readers of rather pedantic and simple ghost stories, and to lovers of a very specific niche of naval memoranda – by which is meant people who are very concerned with what certain types of ropes are called

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Towards Zero, by Agatha Christie

March 27, 2011 at 13:09 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery, Thriller) (, , , )

6/10

At its most fundamental level, this is the perfect “typical” mystery story, and even somewhat clich├ęd. There are an entire roomful of suspects, each with ample opportunity to do the wicked deed, dark secrets dredged up from darker pasts and motives aplenty. That sort of thing can become rather tiresome, and invariably leads to the cynical reader abandoning all hope of guessing the ending, and the optimistic reader guessing wrongly.

The two points on which this story redeems itself admirably are the interesting idea of the countdown to death, and the pleasing humanity of the detective, Battle. The anecdote told of him at the beginning would be delightful even if it didn’t slip in a clue or two as to the type of the crime; and in a genre of clairvoyant Poirots and unfazable Marples, Christie’s addition of an honest, sometimes puzzled, but genuinely relatable hero was especially endearing. The narrative device of the leadup to the fateful zero hour was a little muddied by the sheer neuroticism of some of the characters, and it could be said that Christie showed her hand just a little too early; tried just a little too hard to convince the reader just how crazy some of her creations were. A dash of pepper on the ground might throw a bloodhound off the scent, but it becomes immediately clear that something fishy is going on, and a reader ought never trust an emphatic author too much. This was, then, a good mystery and an enjoyable book, but does not show Christie at the top of her game.

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Rebel Agent, by William C. Dietz

March 26, 2011 at 13:08 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , )

1/10

After a rather average first installment to this fragile series, this book was never going to prompt high expectations. It was also never going to prompt utter, hollow despair, either. Judging him by his other work, Dietz is plainly not an absolutely dreadful author. In his favour, he corrects a few of the shortcomings of the first book. We are finally treated to a few flashbacks into the history of some of his key characters: but too little and too late. There are not incentives to care overly much about characters killed off a few pages into the previous volume, and his descriptions of Morgan Katarn are written in such a peurile and pedantic manner as to make them unreadable.

Dietz is verbose where he ought to be brief, and agonisingly incomplete where development is imperative. His dialogue is only to be considered better than his prose because there is less of it to torture the cringing reader. This is a truly appalling book, without any redemptive features whatsoever. A more coherant and engaging story could be gleaned by watching through the cutscenes of the video game on which this book is based.

Related review:
Soldier for the Empire
Jedi Knight

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Inside the Brotherhood, by Martin Short

March 25, 2011 at 20:59 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

8/10

Any book that brands itself as an expose is hardly going to treat its subject in a fair way, and Martin Short is largely hostile from the outset. This book is laid out not like a neutral investigation, but like a serious and very earnest prosecution. Note that it is a prosecution, not a persecution. Short does his level best to write from properly accredited sources, and he provides limited biographies for most of the men and women he interviews. He blatantly borrows much of his strongest materials from Stephen Knight, and acknowledges his debt to Knight repeatedly, almost turning the other researcher as a kind of martyr in the battle against Freemasonry.

And it is a battle; make no mistake on that count. Whereas many investigative authors begin from a carefully nuanced viewpoint and work towards exoneration or accusation, Short begins at accusation and grows steadily more vitriolic. His arguments are convincing and eloquent at the beginning of the book: his assertion, for instance, that Freemasonry and Christianity (or any other religion) are incompatible is all the stronger for his own ambivalence towards various faiths. His delvings into the sordid dealings of various political figures are almost always linked strongly with their transgressions as Freemasons, and their corruptions based on their prior loyalties to Freemasonry, rather than simply hunting down evil men who happen to be Freemasons on the side.

This book falls apart a little about two-thirds of the way through, when Short seems to run out of material. He abandons his careful and scholarly approach, but keeps his level of vim and vinegar high, and consequently many of his later arguments bear the impression of a grudge without facts to support it, or of angry rumourmongering. While this later lapse is disappointing, it in no way lessens the impact of his very successful denouncement of a dangerous and frightening cult.

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The Balkans, by Misha Glenny

March 24, 2011 at 14:57 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )

10/10

An essential book for anyone interested in anything more than a snapshot of the Balkans and their troubled history. Glenny does not go into great depth when dealing with peripheral issues such as Western European politics, and he relies heavily on his reader’s familiarity with the Byzantine-Turkish wars in particular and the entire region’s Medieval history in general; but when he reaches his subject he is thoughtful, painstaking and scrupulous in his artistic depiction of the shifting fates and follies of the Yugoslavian nations and their neighbours.

His book has a definite agenda to it, and his insistence on blaming the Treaty of Lausanne, Congress of Berlin and NATO for all of the Balkan violence seems a little one-sided; while external manipulation has certainly plagued the region excessively, the sheer scale of the repeated genocides, rapes and wanton slaughters suggests deeper-seeded issues than simply the provocation of careless and greedy superpowers. Nevertheless, although this particular perspective is laid on rather thickly, Glenny is a convincing communicator, and never relies upon blind assumption or tenuous causality, tracing his arguments out in abundant documentary caution, and providing a very attractive thesis.

This history expends itself mostly between 1890 and 1940, choosing the bookends of the Congress of Berlin and the disastrous Nazi occupation; but an extra hundred pages on the Communist Balkans would have been very welcome (Ceaucescu’s deposition and execution is given only one sentence, and many of the colourful and vital figures are given only brief mention). Evidently Glenny is of the opinion that these years were dominated by symptoms of earlier illnesses, and of only fleeting curiosity. While a great deal of credit must be given Glenny for his even coverage of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania and even peripheral nations such as Turkey and Hungary, after the Second World War his attention becomes almost entirely diverted to the Bosniak-Croat-Serb quarrels–a surprising choice, considering Albania’s and Macedonia’s supreme relevance to these three ethnic groups! He admits as much, but prefers to centre his efforts on the major players rather than the prizes for which they were fighting.

It seems that there is room for Glenny or another historian to expand upon the dooms prophesied in this book and write a lengthy sequel covering Yugoslavia from 1990 until Kosovo’s independence. Such a book would be very welcome, and would add significantly to this excellent work.

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Total Money Makeover, by Dave Ramsey

March 23, 2011 at 19:33 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books) (, , )

This book loses a star or two for the testimony sections. Otherwise it's great.

7/10

Can I speak in the first person? Just for a moment? Hello, world. Hello, fourth wall. Hello, reader. I (that is, the writer behind this weblog) really hate get-rich-quick scams, lying advertisements that manipulate greedy people, and simple steps to health, wealth and happiness. I looked at the cover of this book, and at the billboards with Ramsey’s carefully-trimmed beard emblazoned all over them, and I hated the Total Money Makeover. Passionately.

Any reader who cringes his way past the smug cover of this book and grits his teeth through the grotesquely chatty introduction will find–surprisingly–that this is not a book of scams or tricks. There is no programme in which to enroll, no package to buy and above all, no secrets hidden by consortiums and unleashed on an unsuspecting world by a smiling liar. There are simply a handful of basic and obvious common-sense rules for personal financial management. Possibly the nicest part of this book is also the most subjective. Ramsey believes that wealth for wealth’s sake is a paltry and shabby thing, and that wealth ought to be enjoyed and given away; hardly the hallmark of a confidence trickster. There is a badly-written but genuinely earnest plea for the reader to cut loose from destructive things like pride and resignation.

While Ramsey does express a few personal philosophies (his religious beliefs, his hatred of loan-sharks, his stark warnings about credit), this book is not even about the sort of philosophies one might expect to find lurking around the dim world of personal finance. He does not lambast materialists or ascetics, and he does not advocate any particular lifestyle. As smarmy and meretricious as Ramsey can feel at times, and as nauseatingly feel-good as so many of the testemonials sprinkled far too liberally throughout the book, this is an incredibly basic and gimmick-free manual of common sense. It is very basically written, and hardly a masterpiece of economics, but it does not aim to be and does not need to be.

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Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt

March 22, 2011 at 12:35 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

4/10

Never judge a book by its cover, eh? And this book is prime fodder for that axiom. Marketed for students who don’t have any choice in the matter, and for people with a shamefully romanticised idea of what it was like to live in the era before toilet paper, a prospective reader might be excused for expecting nothing but the smell of hay in the air, gals and their fellers attending barn dances, and love coming softly. Those prospective readers might also be forgiven for giving Across Five Aprils a very wide berth; and frankly, Irene Hunt gets off to a famously bad start.

The reader is instantly thrust headfirst into the middle of an utterly unlikeable and unattractive family, dirt farmers from way-back-when; and expected to sit avidly through supposedly halcyon reminiscences of roasting sweet potatoes and bits o’ hog over hot coals and having a good ol’ timey ol’ time. This is not the way that interesting books are supposed to begin. Hunt introduces her readers to a family they care nothing about, and commences for an agonising forty pages to give them that many more reasons to put the book down and make a sandwich instead. After a while, the ‘good ol’ fashioned war’ begins, and despite his best efforts, any honest reader begins to empathise with the characters, and the story actually starts to grow interesting. Engaging, even. There are some very plausible villains and heroes, and if Matt Creighton is a poor man’s Atticus Finch and Jethro is a poor man’s Tom Sawyer, then at least Hunt has created characters real enough and solid enough to be compared at all with these classics.

The goodness and badness (and redeemed…ness) of various characters is also treated sensitively, and their various virtues and vices are not forced too emphatically down the reader’s throat. Nor indeed are all of the collective storylines concluded in a neatly packaged bundle, which is also refreshing. Unfortunately, the author feels the pressure to at least finish the war, possibly to end the whole thing on a cheery note of optimism – although when she includes the disastrous assassination of Lincoln, this motive seems a little unlikely. Undoubtedly its rigid adherance to the historical narrative – from “beginning” to “end” – is what has kept this book in schools; but equally undoubtedly, this has also kept it from being a success, as the narrative leaves a surprisingly exciting middle section and ends with as little appeal as it began.

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Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett

March 20, 2011 at 14:31 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

5/10

This was an enjoyable Discworld book, but it will never be one of the best. It has some interesting existential overtones, but the Death story is more like a robot-learning-to-love story than anything else. Pratchett does that particular storyline better with his golems. Besides that, this one stands out mostly for its rather disappointing lack of things that stand out. It’s funny at times. There are interesting ideas raised occasionally. Pratchett keeps the reader’s attention, but seems never to go anywhere. Oh, to be sure there is an interesting side plot about the wizards puzzling over a shopping mall that has appeared outside the city. And a side plot about some undead creatures. There’s a really good side plot about a werewolf and a werehuman falling in love, and another one about Death falling in love. But by the time the end arrives, taking its time and moving a little slowly, this is a compendium of side plots strung together, and without either anything to bind each to its other. Good, but for Terry Pratchett “good” translates as “average”.

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A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

March 18, 2011 at 13:15 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , , )

9/10

Charles Dickens, it has been said, writes comic-book characters in epic proportions (and this was said in the days when “epic” was neither a movie genre nor an internet meme). His creations are boldly-outlined things of good and evil; caricature pastiches of the sins of the rich and the foibles of the poor, moral platitudes stringing together monstrous moments of suspense. A Tale of Two Cities is filled with his most typical of characters, and for at least the first half can offer neither anything new, nor even particularly stimulating. The reader grows to love Darnay and his family–but only because he must. The nagging feeling of being set up, and the enormous globules of pathos wrung from every scene, do grow somewhat tiresome, particularly when offset with so little activity or action.

That the book’s surprise central character turns out to be Carton, a sneering, cynical lawyer only a plot twist away from turning villain himself, is a marvellous turn of events, and so unlikely that despite Dickens’ heavy-handed foreshadowing, chapters in advance, it remains astounding even to the final page. Even in the simplicity of the plot, the climax of the book is so daring, and bears such a beautiful and rare theme, as to make the most hard-hearted of readers hold for a moment of solemn circumspection.

Ultimately, the best of Charles Dickens’ novels is a tangled skein of often interesting and occasionally dull slices of life, gathered together with plenty of notification, but with style and panache to form something singularly beautiful. Its resounding success relies on the frailty and wonder of that–Recalled to Life–and if the miraculous ending only has power because of the lengthy preparations, the climax is still the best thing about this book.

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Arrest-Proof Yourself, by Dale Carson

March 15, 2011 at 20:59 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

6/10

A useful book, and rather humourously written. The reader will realise he is not reading a blog or a list of tips when the humour begins to flag and the author starts to become repetitive, stern and lecturing. Most of what he has to say is bleak, pessimistic, sensible, paranoid, amoral, revelatory and useful. He is not on a crusade to change the world, but seems to vacillate between his outrage at the cruelty of an unfair and unyielding system, and a genuine desire to educate offenders who should not (in his view) end up in jail. Or prison.

Because of the author’s credentials it is difficult to attach the epithet of paranoia to him, but at times he does veer into hyperbolic rantings that seem to paint a picture of flatfoots behind every tree, and The Sweeney resting a knowing hand on his gun while watching innocent citizens with cold, gimlet eyes, and waiting for them to make that one mistake that will doom them. His audience is clearly those with something to hide, or else the likewise-paranoid who will identify with this sort of dystopic vision. Perhaps not a book whose every jot and tittle ought to be heeded, but one containing information that everyone certainly ought to know

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