The October Man (Rivers of London, #7.5)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 3 stars

This novella is a bit more substantial than The Furthest Station and is the first mainstream work that moves away from the PoV of Peter Grant. Looking at the GR series for the Rivers of London I did notice the name of Tobias Winter though, so it turns out that this wasn’t his appearance in the series, even if the previous one was a flash fiction piece on Aaronovitch’s blog summarising the lead up to Tobias becoming a practitioner.

In this novella, Tobias is well on that journey, and is sent to investigate the potentially magical death of a man in the city of Trier. His local liaison is Vanessa Sommer (and more than one person cracks a joke at the expense of Winter and Sommer) who turns out to be competent, enthusiastic and ambitious.

Although we’re not in London any more, the local river goddess does make an appearance and Tobias is a decent enough Peter Grant substitute. I do miss the familiar crowd though. I liked both Tobias and Vanessa, but the former doesn’t really have a distinct narrative voice for me, and it did feel like Aaronovitch spent a long time covering basics that readers would really be familiar with by now, after seven novels, six graphic novels and a handful of short stories. Although, to be fair, it is interesting to see the German perspective on things that we think we’re familiar with.

That’s really the most interesting thing about this story, really: seeing familiar things from a different perspective and seeing how another culture deals with magic. Towards the end of The Hanging Tree Peter Grant muses on establishing communications with other national magical police forces. It’s clear from Tobias that this hasn’t happened yet (although Tobias keeps tabs on Peter, he doesn’t think that Peter knows about him) and that would make for an interesting story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228665
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2019

Love Among the Chickens (Ukridge, #1)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 3 stars

Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge descends upon his friend Jeremy Garnet and persuades him to come to the country and help him farm chickens. Whilst there, Garnet falls in love with a nearby resident but love’s course never runs smoothly. And while Garnet is wooing (or, at least, trying to woo) the young lady, the chicken farm goes from calamity to calamity.

This is very early Wodehouse and I found myself skipping entire pages in frustration. I just didn’t like the character of Ukridge. Unlike other (later?) creations, he has all the flaws of a Wodehouse character, but none of the compensations; he’s not charming, just boorish, arrogant and completely self-absorbed. Thank goodness he’s not the protagonist of the book; it would have been too much to take. Thankfully, large chunks of the book are focused on Garnet and his love life which is much more like the Wodehouse we know and love, coming up with a plan Jeeves himself would have been proud of (and then dealing with the consequences when it went horribly wrong). That’s the only reason this book is scoring as highly as it is from me.

Book details

Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
Year of publication: 1906

The Broken Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy, #2)

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 3 stars

I’m not sure if it’s just down to my state of mind at the time of reading, but I didn’t enjoy this as much as its predecessor. Our environment and the things going on in our lives definitely affect how we consume media and I feel that possibly that I wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind for this book. It’s set about a decade after the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as Oree Shoth takes in a strange, homeless man and, as a result, gets drawn into a plot that starts with killing godlings, but has much bigger implications.

We get to see many more of the godlings in this book than we did in the previous one. That one was focussed entirely on the imprisoned ones, but the others had been banned from coming to the mortal realm. With that injunction gone, they flock there. We see gods of hunger, shadow, debt and more. Jemesin plays them with a light touch; although they supported Itempas in the Gods’ War, they don’t necessarily love him. And speaking of, we get some insight into the mind of Bright Itempas as his time with Oree starts to help heal him. Despite his terrible actions as revealed in the first book, we end this one feeling pity for him, even as Oree does.

And Oree is an interesting protagonist. Not as hard as Yeine from the first book. She’s a blind artist who was never near the halls and corridors of power and finds it difficult to cope with everything that happens to her, although when push comes to shove, she does have the strength to deal with it.

While I wasn’t completely wowed by this book, I’ll still look out for the final book in the trilogy.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841498188
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

The Witch at Wayside Cross

By Lisa Tuttle

Rating: 3 stars

Picking up where the first book left off, this novel sees our intrepid detectives with a dead man in their hall. The police chalk it down to natural causes, but they aren’t so sure. The trail leads them to a small village in Norfolk and more mysteries sprout up as they investigate.

I didn’t really enjoy this one as much as its predecessor. There was no single villain with the presence or charisma of Mr Chase and the three mysteries never really gelled that well for me. I’m also surprised that the discussion of Lane’s abilities were never mentioned at all, given their importance in the first. In fact, there was very little here to count as supernatural. Yes, there was talk of witches and magic killings, but who needs magic when you’ve got a knowledge of botanicals? And the whole subplot of the fair folk kidnapping Maria’s child just seemed to fizzle out.

I found Di Lane less engaging as a protagonist in this one too. She seemed to miss obvious clues and was generally a bit slower on the uptake than I would have expected of her. I also found Jesperson slightly more annoying as well.

Despite being negative in this review, I still read the book avidly and, for the most part, enjoyed it. I’ll look out for the next book in the series, but won’t jump at it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857054555
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2017

The Adventures of Sally

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this book, focussing on Sally Nicholas, who’s just come into an inheritance, and her adventures, starting with a holiday in Europe where she meets Ginger Kemp, who’s a good egg but who can’t seem to hold on to any work.

It’s interesting, in that there are more clouds in these particular sunlit uplands than I’m used to with classic Wodehouse. Not necessarily many, but it feels like he was trying to add a bit more depth (and even pathos?) to his writing. Paragraphs where Sally muses on the nature of men’s focus on success to the exclusion of all else, or the (more than one) references to suicide bring this into relief.

But there’s still a lot of humour, and Wodehouse’s patented absurd characters, not to mention frightful relatives (an uncle, this time, rather than the more traditional aunt) and it wouldn’t be Wodehouse if it didn’t all get untangled by the end.

Book details

Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
Year of publication: 1922

Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There?

By Jim Al-Khalili

Rating: 3 stars

In this fairly short book, Jim Al-Khalili pulls together a number of scientists, some quite well known, to try and tackle the Fermi Paradox, from a whole bunch of different angles. The first section looks at the idea of alien civilisations and their place in popular culture. Then we move on to questions around what makes for a habitable planet and the search for life within our solar system, before an analysis of what life actually is and theories around how it could begin. The final section actually looks at methods of searching for extra-terrestrial life.

It’s all interesting, although the essays are quite short and necessarily brief. There’s a decent bibliography for further reading, and a suggested list of films featuring aliens, from the chapter on alien life in cinema.

I came away from this book not sure what to believe about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life (Matthew’s Cobb’s chapter on the improbability of intelligent life is both compelling and depressing), but having had a decent introduction to a number of different ways of thinking about both SETI and what life is and mechanisms that we are using for detecting it, whether that be through analysing Martian soil samples or sampling the spectra of a planet many light-years away and analysing it for traces of atmospheric gases that might be indicators of life. It’s a good primer, and each chapter is well-written and engaging, without getting too technical. Even if, at times, it feels like it could be a bit more technical.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781256817
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2016

Queen of Roses

By Elizabeth McCoy

Rating: 3 stars

I got this book as part of the 2019 feminist future story bundle, and it was the excerpt from this book that honestly sold the whole bundle to me. Sarafina is an AI, until recently working for a bank, which has now gone into administration. Her tenure is sold to the owner of a cruise ship, and she finds herself installed as the main passenger interface AI on the Queen of Roses. Here she has to deal with people on a regular basis, including passengers, crew and a drunkard, intolerant captain. Add a bunch of stowaways into the mix and it’s not exactly an easy first cruise for her.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but looking back at it, I do think it could have done with another pass from an editor, especially towards the end, as the plot started to ramp up, and I’m not sure that McCoy kept hold of all the threads all properly. There were some minor things (such as the specifically mentioned handed salutes between two characters) and some less minor things (such as how did Mrs Selsda get hold of Sarafina’s programming key?), but in general I liked both Sarafina herself, and Pilot, the other AI on the ship. The “biologicals” were a mixed bunch, who mostly played to type: the drunkard captain; the roguish first officer; the competent engineer, but were all decent characters.

I liked how McCoy showed us how Sarafina split her attention amongst her myriad tasks, something that can’t be easy to imagine or describe given that humans can’t split our attention amongst more than a handful of tasks. I thought the world-building could have been improved. We didn’t get any real impression of how the galaxy is organised, or about the Xanadu system or why it was a threat, not to mention more about Keevey and Keelin. And most importantly for me, no real discussion of the ethics of (even temporary) enslavement of sentient creatures. Yes, the AIs can work their way out of debt, but it still feels icky to me. We don’t make our children pay back the cost of their creation and raising, after all, why should we do that for an AI? I can totally believe that it would happen, but it would have been nice to get at treatment of it in the book.

The prejudice against AIs, on the other hand, requires no leap of the imagination to believe, but I’m glad that the opposite was there as well. The relationship between the free AI Loren and Mr Corvhey was quite sweet.

An enjoyable, if flawed, romp with a very likeable lead character, and bonus points for that lead being very both female and very believably non-human.

Book details

ISBN: 9781476412122
Publisher: Smashwords
Year of publication: 2012

Rule 34 (Halting State, #2)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 3 stars

DI Liz Kavanaugh is head of the Rule 34 squad, a sort of punishment for something that went wrong several years ago. It’s up to her and hers to police internet porn in an independent Scotland. Anwar Hussein was a small-time Internet fraudster who’s spent time behind bars and is trying to go straight, for the sake of his family. The Toymaker is wondering who’s killing all the folk he’s trying to recruit to his large scale organised crime Operation.

Like its predecessor, Halting State this book is told entirely in the second person, a technique that I’ve never been very fond of, but there are solid reasons for that in this book, as Stross sets out in the crib sheet for the book on his blog (note: obviously spoilers at that link!). And I got used to it as well; I think it feels most icky when we’re in the head of the gangster, the Toymaker, who’s creepy as all hell.

For me, this book is at its strongest when it’s doing the police procedural thing, with lots of cool future-tech extrapolated from the early 21st century. At times, though, the pace of new ideas being thrown at you gets a little overwhelming (it feels a bit like Cory Doctorow at times) when the ideas outpace the story. Mostly, though, Stross keeps a handle on that and the book is certainly thought-provoking, not least in its ideas on different kinds of AI.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841497730
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2011

The Magic Flute (Krishnavatara #1)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

My parents got the the full set of Krishnavatara books when I was young, but I’ve never really felt the urge to read them until recently, when I’ve felt more interested in reading up on parts of my heritage. I knew some of what was in this volume from the stories that my parents told me as a child, and others from when the BBC showed a dramatisation of the Mahabharat back in the early ’90s but I enjoyed refreshing my memory of those, and fitting them into a single narrative (even if it was difficult to keep the various relationships straight in my head).

One thing I liked quite a lot is that the young Krishna feels very human. He’s frankly a bit of a git at times, when he steals butter and breaks jars, and the chapter that involved him killing a heron that seemed to just be protecting its children only made any sense when it was revealed that the bird was possessed (a couple of chapters from the end!).

It was also very interesting to read the note preceding the chapter on Radha which admits that she wasn’t part of the ancient texts, the first mentions only appearing in the first few centuries CE and not becoming fixed in the consciousness until the 12th century CE.

On a similar note, but within the text itself is the festival of Gopotsava, in which Krishna persuades his village to abandon a festival of Indra based on fear and, instead, celebrate the herdsmen, cattle and mountain that give them life, effectively elevating the landscape to godhood. I thought that was a fascinating mindset with defiance and grace in one action.

As with all ancient writings, some things don’t fit well to a modern mindset: polygamy is normal, and the idea of a childless wife lying with a man other than her husband (with appropriate rituals) to gain a child is a bit icky, as is the condemnation of women who don’t want children. There’s also a slightly uncomfortable connection between physical health and beauty on the one side and goodness and grace on the other. But all these have to be read in the context of their time.

The stories are full of action and memorable characters, for good or evil; it’s an easy book to read. I’m not sure if it was written in English or if it’s just a very good translation, but it’s very readable (although I’ve never figured out the obsession with appending an unnecessary ‘a’ to the end of many transliterated names: Balarama instead of Balram etc). I’ll definitely pick up the the rest of the series when I get the chance.

Book details

Year of publication: 1966

Beholder’s Eye (Web Shifters, #1)

By Julie E. Czerneda

Rating: 3 stars

Esen-alit-Quar is the youngest member of the Web of Ersh, a shapeshifter who will live for eons, and whose goal is to remember the civilisations and species that will intersect her path in that time. She’s sent on her first solo mission which goes wrong, and she finds herself on the run, yet also drawn into another Web, one of friendship.

I did enjoy this book, but I’m afraid it didn’t grip me enough to make me want to seek out the sequels. I can’t quite pin down what made me go ‘meh’ about it, though. Esen is a likeable protagonist, and Paul also a decent person and fleshed out well enough to be a good character. They get into a number of scrapes and Esen’s shapeshifting abilities are well-defined, as is the mystery behind the Web. Perhaps it’s the antagonist, which, because of its very nature, could never really be much of a character, but I’d have liked to have seen more about it, and perhaps from its point of view. On the other hand, maybe I should just chalk this one down to not being in the right mood when I read it.

The universe is definitely wide in scope and is worthy of exploring further. The human Confederation, the Fringe, not to mention Paul’s old crew are all interesting in their own right. Hmm, maybe I’ve just talked myself into looking out for the sequels after all?

Book details

ISBN: 9780886778187
Publisher: DAW Books
Year of publication: 1998

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