Friday, 29 December 2017

My Books of the Year (Fiction)

For my pick of non-fiction books I've read this year, see here.

Again, these are in no particular order...

John Scalzi (ed), Metatropolis 
I'm not sure how to describe this.  It's an anthology of stories by authors who've set themselves the task of writing in a shared future - a post-urban one.  There is a heavy leaning to a world where Green Is Good. 
Like all anthologies it's a bit hit-and-miss, but I enjoyed it a lot - in no small part because it introduced me to some interesting new writers.

Jason Goodwin, The Snake in the Stone
This is the second of Goodwin's novels about Yashim the Eunuch, a resident of 1830s Constantinople who (of course!) gets roped-in as a sort of semi-official investigator when crimes threaten the status quo
In this case it's the murder of a dodgy French archaeologist who has been upsetting the city's Greek community just when the authorities don't need it (the Sultan is dying).  Can Yashim find what lies at the heart of a conspiracy that goes back centuries?  (Spoiler: Yes, he can.)
Goodwin, who's also a published historian of the Ottomans, obviously knows his stuff.  The way he describes the city, its people and its food is a real pleasure to read, and Yashim is a very engaging companion.

Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk and Moriarty.
Of course I'm cheating here counting these separate books as one  (thus turning my Top Ten up to eleven).  But I read them both in 2017, so they both fall within the parameters of this list.  Indeed, I was so pleased by The House of Silk, that I went out and got Moriarty straight away.
I've not read any of Horowitz's books before,  He's best known as the author of Young Adult books such as the Alex Rider series and as creator of the TV's Inspector Foyle.
Both books are Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  The House of Silk was apparently the first pastiche authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate.  In a way it's a straightforward  tale in the style of Conan Doyle, but very skillfully done.  As you'd expect, it's narrated by Watson and concerns two intertwined cases.  There is a nice twist at the end which I didn't see coming (perhaps blinded by the twist which I was allowed to see).
Twists are obviously Horowitz's bag, as he takes us on a much more twisty route with Moriarty.  Not so obviously a copy of Conan Doyle's model, it takes us into his world from a different direction.
In the Swiss morgue that holds Moriarty's body after his encounter with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, a Pinkerton agent meets Insp Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard.  Together they set out to stop the vacuum created by his death being filled by a new threat

Kim Newman, Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles.
Talking of Holmes pastiches, here's another one. It follows one of the more traditional of pastiche styles - "Look I'm taking the Holmes characters and mixing them with other writers'.  Aren't I clever and amusing!"  In fact, The Hound of the D'Urbervilles is both clever and amusing, because Newman know's his stuff.  He also has an engaging writing style which doesn't judder to a halt and signpost every time he makes an historical or literary reference.   A knowledge of turn-of-the-century adventure literature would help, but if you've heard of Fu Manchu, Raffles and Ruritania, you'll get by nicely.
The gimmick here is that instead of the found writings of Watson writing about Holmes' cases, we have those of Colonel Sebastian "Basher" Moran writing about those of everyone's favorite consulting criminal, Moriarty.  A fun read, which reminded me of the best of Flashman.  
I hadn't read any Newman before, but I've got his Dracula books on the shelf and will give them a go. 

Peter F Hamilton, Great North Road.  
In putting this list together, I was surprised that there wasn't more science fiction.  
In this stand-alone book, Hamilton picks up some of the themes of his other works - corporate dynasties, cloning technologies and wormholes - and weaves together a story in which a murder one cold, snowy night in 2143's Newcastle turns out to be of planetary importance.  
Hamilton is, of course a master of both world-building and character creation and here we see him at his best.  If I had a quibble, I would say that at 1,087pp, it's about 150 pages too long.  
After reading this I was lured into starting the Void Trilogy.  I enjoy Hamilton's work and I have nothing against either brick-sized books or trilogies.  The problem is that they do need some investment.  The Void books require me to remember who is who in the Commonwealth Saga.  Now I enjoyed the Commonwealth Saga a lot (it's probably some of Hamilton's best work), but I read it over ten years ago and my memory isn't sufficiency good to recall relatively minor characters.  To cut a long story short, I've got stuck about a third of the way through the second book and moved on to other things.  
However, I don't want to put anyone off,  as I say, Great North Road is a stand-alone, so if you want to read 1,000 pages of great science-fiction instead of 5,000 give it a go. 

Andrew Weir, The Martian.  
This wasn't a new read for 2017.  The Martian has become one of my go-to books when I want to read something familiar.  
I suspect it doesn't need much introduction.  It's a story of exploration and survival as a lone astronaut on Mars desperately tries to live long enough to be rescued. 
Good hard sci-fi.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

My Books of the Year (Non-Fiction)

It's the time of year for introspective posts, so I thought I'd put together a list of the top ten books I've read this year.

This list isn't in any particularly order.  It had been my intention to choose five fiction and five non-fiction titles, but I found that I hadn't read as much non-fiction as I'd thought, and that in choosing five I was struggling and excluding some fiction that deserved the cut.  Nevertheless, I;ve still been able to waffle on about them at suffient length to justify splitting the list into two posts in order to give you a break.

So, here we go...

Claire Tomlin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.  
A  biography of Pepys, who shouldn't need any introduction to my readers.  The C17th "isn't my period", but Tomlin did the trick of making Restoration politics interesting and giving a good, rounded picture of the world Pepys was operating it.  
Unlike some other of his biographers, she devotes as much energy to Pepys' life after he stopped writing the diary as before.  In doing so, she reminds us just what an interesting life he led, and us what a loss it was that it ended where it did.  
We're so used to the diary set-pieces being thrown as us - what would it be like if they included his impressions of Paris, the death his long-suffering wife or the short reign of James II?  What would we learn about the machinations that saw him elected to Parliament, Secretary to the Admiralty, imprisoned in the Tower, tried as a cypto-Catholic and serving out his time as a non-Juror?  What personal revelations would we find about 'the second Mrs Pepys', the mistress that he kept for 20 years?  
This is a damn good read, and the best book I read this year.

DA Thomas, Edwin's Letters: A Fragment of a Life, 1940-43.    
As the subtitle suggests, this is a biography on a much smaller scale than the one of Pepys.  Thomas has collected letters (mostly from Edwin to his mother) relating to his brother's time in the RAF, from call-up, through training, to joining a bomber crew, being declared 'Missing' and finally the confirmation of his death in action. 
It's the fact that very little of this book concerns itself with operation matters that appeals to me. The great majority of the letters concern themselves with a young man thrown into a strange world and bothered about things like whether he will have to re-sit his exams on navigation yet again.

Geoffrey Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War. 
Capt Bennett's study - first published in 1969 - is now a classic, and perhaps somewhat dated.  Despite this it's well worth the read if you want an introduction to the Royal Navy's activities during the war, particularly the Big Ships.  If you want something more comprehensive that covers all theatres, nations and types of naval combat, read Paul G Halpern's A Naval History of World War I, which I also heartily recommend,
Bennett starts with a consideration of how the German merchant cruisers were tracked down and neutralised - concentrating as you'd imagine from the title on von Spee's squadron and the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands - and the pursuit of the Goben and Breslau.  After that, despite a couple of interesting chapters on the U-boat campaigns, he is firmly focused on the North Sea face-off between the Grand Fleet and the Hochseeflotte.  
For those of you who are naval wargamers, this provides a lot of inspiration and food for thought: not least on the problem of how inadequately wargames represent the fog of war, mis-identification, lack of communication and sheer bloody cock-up.

Elizabeth Speller, Following Hadrian: A Second Century Journey Through the Rom an Empire.
I picked this book up thinking that it would be a travelogue, following some of Hadrian's peregrinations.  It isn't.  In a way it's more than that, it's a consideration of Hadrian's philhellenism and how that affected his attitude to ruling an empire.  Mainly it is concerned with the visit to Greece and Egypt in 128-130CE and how the mysterious death of his lover Antinous changed him and quite possibly his plans for the Empire.
I'm not a Roman scholar, or even anyone with more than a general knowledge of Roman history, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of Speller's arguments.  Certainly, I can imagine that for someone with a 'serious; interest in Roman history her insertion of large chunks of a fictitious diary of one of the Empress' confidants would grate.  For me, those bits were well done and reminiscent of Allan Massie's books (his praise is the cover blurb), but perhaps they belonged in another book.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Monsterman and AD&D Dieties

Now, I think I've probably mentioned James Holloway's podcast Monsterman ('Because Monsters Are Interesting') before.  Some of you will know James from his blog Gonzo History: Gaming Edition, but Monsterman is
a podcast that delves into the classic AD&D Monster Manual from 1977. Every episode looks at one or more D&D monsters, digging deeper into their inspirations and uses. 
It's not so learned as to put one off, but there's some really interesting stuff there.  Basically a mix of 'real' mythology and a consideration of why it appealed to hairy '70s types.  If you play RPGs and especially if your a GM who's interested in world-building, it will reward listening.  We need more of this kind of stuff.

It suits my magpie mind very well and, quite frankly, if you find my approach to blogging of interest, James does in much better.

James has now launched a new project.  Do consider supporting it:-


Although I've said that MonsterMan isn't off-putting, be aware that Deities and Demigonds does have it's moments.  Frankly, you're not going to get a consideration of the Sumerian Pantheon that doesn't include chaps with confusing names and discussion of  some Big Ideas.  Do persevere though.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

November Loot

For various reasons I won't go into now, November was a complete write-off hobby-wise.  I've just checked and it was one of only two months since August 2012 when I haven't even made a single blog post.  But I'm not here to beat myself up about it...

With the prep underway for the Analogue Hobbies Painting Challenge 'Ate, hopefully this will change, but I thought I'd start the ball rolling with the old stalwart - 'What I've Bought Recently'.  As regular readers will know, I don't spend much money on hobbies, so it's not a large haul.

With the relative successes of Zomtober and 'Go Sober!' I thought I'd treat myself to some of the money the latter saved me so went out and got me a survivor's gang.

These, of course, are Hasslefree Miniatures post-apoc version of Mystery Inc - hopefully should be fun to paint. 

While in this self-congratulatory mood I also treated myself to David Manley's White Bear, Red Sun - his mini campaign covering the Russo-Japanese War, which I blogged about when they were published back in early October

Since then, Topside Minis have released their Tsushima range and David announced yesterday that his supplement covering the naval side of the Spanish American War is now available.  Both are high on my list for my next splurge of retail therapy.

For some years now Bob Murch at Pulp Figures has been producing a figure to raise money for Movember (his giving page is still open).  For the first time these have been easily available in the UK , with North Star carrying masses of Bob's ranges, so I took the opportunity to pick up previous years' figures (this year's didn't appeal to me).  As you can see, these are really great figures, full of character.

Misc Stuff

28mm  mini for scale

A really lucky find was this semi-flat Doughboy that I picked up very cheaply in a charity shop.

Yesterday, I went for a mooch around some of the 'antique' shops in town (as a antidote to Christmas shopping).  I was lucky enough to find this:-

Seems to be complete...
For those interested, the write-up on BoardGame Geek can be seen here.  A few months ago I'd seen a copy of L'Attaque, the land equivalent, and had been half kicking myself for not picking one up. 

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