Kidnapped (David Balfour, #1)

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Rating: 3 stars

David Balfour is newly an orphan at seventeen. A message from his late father directs him to seek out his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws to make his fortune. Said uncle, however, betrays him and sees him on a ship bound for slavery in the Americas. Through a series of unlikely events, David makes it back to Scotland with his new companion Alan Breck Stewart and begins a journey across the highlands to reclaim his inheritance.

I didn’t know much about this book before I saw an absolutely stonking theatrical production put on by the National Theatre of Scotland. I adored that and was inspired to seek out the original text, which didn’t disappoint (mostly). It’s a cracking read, well-paced, full of adventure, and male bonding. Despite having lived in Scotland for well over half a lifetime, I confess I don’t know its history hugely well. But I did, coincidentally, just read up a bit on the Jacobite rebellion not long before reading the book, which provided invaluable context.

I do think it slightly ran out of steam towards the end. By the time David sees Alan away on the ship to France and turns away to go to a bank, I was just sort of left bemused. Like there were a few pages missing, maybe? But no, a quick check on Wikipedia reveals that’s where the book ends. Seems like an odd note to end on, but the main body of the book is a great fun read, that still works into the 21st century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780439295789
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2002

Around the World in Eighty Days

By Jules Verne

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed this tale of Phileas Fogg and his wager to travel around the world in 80 days. I found the pacing good, the action enjoyable and the characters engaging, although I can’t help wondering if Mr Fogg has a form of autism that led to his complete exactitude and lack of deviance from schedules.

There’s a good mix of good and bad fortune that Fogg and crew encounter and the scheming Inspector Fix of the Yard keeps changing his colours, always trying to apprehend Fogg, who he suspects of a bank robbery. A highly enjoyable read.

UPDATE 2022-12-06: reread after being gifted a beautiful Folio Society edition, complete with gorgeous map tucked into a pocket at the back. This time round, I read Fogg more as being Verne’s pastiche of an Englishman – mechanically minded and with an upper lip so stiff that no emotion dare passes. The loyal Passepartout, on the other hand, is the everyman, the sensible French antithesis to this, always wearing his emotion on his sleeve. They make a fun duo, in their own ways.

The book is obviously dated in other ways, the sections interacting with Indians and Native Americans in particular left me wincing in their stereotypes. But there’s no doubting Verne’s glee at the shrinking of the globe and the joy he takes in describing both the lands that the travellers go through, and the various modes of transport that take them, including trains, boats, sledges, even and elephant. But no hot air balloon, despite what the various media adaptations would have us believe. So I retain my original conclusion that this is a highly enjoyable read (even if you do have to put on your Product-of-its-Time rose-tinted specs at times).

Book details

Publisher: The Folio Society
Year of publication: 2021

The Untold Story

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 5 stars

In the last Invisible Library book (for now, at least), Irene and her merry band of followers are back on the trail of the traitor Alberich – a trail that leads to the door of the Library itself, and a conspiracy therein. I have loved these books since the first time we met Irene, hard at work stealing books and I think now, eight volumes in, Irene has become one of my favourite fictional characters of the century so far.

I love Cogman’s writing, which is pacy, exciting and humorous. Every time I sit down to read one of these books, it feels warm and comforting, with just the right amount of danger, to give it a bit of spice. This book had the core cast working together well, and although Catherine hasn’t been around for as long as Kai and Vale, she’s got a solid place in my heart already.

Vale was always my favourite supporting cast member, and while he doesn’t get to shine quite as much as he did in earlier books, he did get possibly my favourite line of the book: “You must surely know by now, Winters, that a leader’s authority is limited to giving her followers orders that they will actually obey.” My heart swelled three sizes at that, as he, along with the others, made it clear that they’re not going to let her go into danger alone.

It’s always difficult to end a long-running series, but this brings the mysteries and concerns that have been bubbling about the Library to a satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader on a high. I’d love to see more adventures for Irene in future, but in the meantime, I hope she can relax with a cup of tea and a good book.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529000634
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2021

Sentenced to Prism (Humanx Commonwealth, #12)

By Alan Dean Foster

Rating: 4 stars

Evan Orgell is a fixer for his company: he gets sent in to Deal With Things when they go wrong. And now they’ve got a planet that they’re trying to illegally open up for exploitation that’s gone out of contact, so they send Orgell in, equipped with the latest in survival suit technology. What he finds is beyond his imagination and that of the designers of his oh so marvellous suit.

I first read this as a teenager, finding it in the local library, when I was hoovering up whatever sci-fi they had. I loved it for the imagination and cool aliens. Rereading it, I find it a bit clunky, and I’m less taken with the protagonist, but the alien world of Prism is still a magnificent creation. Full of silicon-based life forms, some of the descriptions fall into full-blown horror, as almost everything he meets wants his tasty, tasty rare earth minerals. Orgell is described as an arrogant generalist, very intelligent and able to integrate lots of new knowledge. This is undermined by his actions in the book, where he does display the described arrogance, but less of the intelligence.

The central theme of the book is our over-reliance on technology. That is Orgell’s early undoing, that he assumes that his suit will be able to overcome anything that the alien world can throw at it. He obviously learns this isn’t true, but he unlearns this reliance on technology surprisingly quickly. There’s also discussion about exploitation of natural resources and new lands – bringing to mind how colonisation fared in our world, from the arrival of Europeans in the New World, to the 19th century European empires that decimated cultures around the world.

There’s a lot packed into a book of under 300 pages and while the writing can be a bit clunky, and the protagonist irritating, the plot is sound, the worldbuilding is great and the ecosystem of Prism very neatly thought out.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345319807
Year of publication: 1985

Ten Little Aliens

By Stephen Cole

Rating: 3 stars

The First Doctor, Ben and Polly find themselves in a hollowed-out asteroid, along with a group special forces in training – and ten of the Earth empire’s most wanted terrorists, dead. And then people (and corpses) start disappearing…

This is an interesting adventure with the First Doctor. This edition, part of a set for the 50th anniversary, has a new foreword by the author where he talks about the inspirations that brought the story together. Although he plays up the Agatha Christie connections, it felt like Starship Troopers or Aliens were the stronger elements. It was difficult to keep track of the marines, and some of them didn’t have hugely distinct personalities. Some of Ben’s comments about the races and sexes of the marines weren’t exactly endearing either, and I’m glad that Polly pulled him up on those.

I quite enjoyed the choose-your-own-adventure section. It was unexpected and an interesting way to get into each of the characters’ heads. In the end, though, the plot felt unnecessarily convoluted, in a way that Christie’s rarely do and I still don’t quite understand it. There’s also a huge amount of blood and gore. Certainly more than I would have expected from a Doctor Who story (especially the First Doctor). One scene where someone was literally torn limb from limb was especially distasteful.

2 1/2 stars, rounded up.

Book details

ISBN: 9781849905169
Publisher: BBC Books
Year of publication: 2002

The Mortal Word (The Invisible Library #5)

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 4 stars

Dreamy sigh. I’ve got quite the book-crush on Irene, but then after five books of saving the world (or worlds) while wanting nothing more than to sit with her feet up and a good book, what sort of heartless monster would you have to be to not? I’d love to sit down with her over a cup of tea and discuss books with the caveats that a) I’d be constantly terrified that Things would happen around her and b) I fear that my range and taste would be somewhat disappointing for her.

The fifth book in the series has the much-rumoured peace conference between the dragons and fae finally happening, but the murder of one of the delegates throws the whole thing into doubt, and Irene is brought in, along with her friend Vale, to solve the mystery and save the treaty.

All the machinations of fae and dragon from previous volumes come together here as well as the undercurrent of the role of humans (and the Library) in the multiverse. Irene has to cope with Kai no longer being her apprentice but an agent in his own right, and one whose interests may not always coincide with hers and has to work with both dragons and fae in her investigating team, walking a careful path between negotiator and leader.

After his absence in the previous volume, I’m glad to see Vale back and in a much stronger supporting role than he’s ever had before. Lord Silver also comes back in all his licentious, manipulating glory; he’s such a fun character (although I do feel that the revelation that he was there in order to “control/blackmail” Vale sort of petered out and didn’t really go anywhere, although that’s a minor issue with so many threads swirling around)

The end of this volume now opens up a lot of possibilities and I’m excited to see where Cogman takes the series next. I understand that she’s been contracted for at least another three books, so there will be plenty more opportunities for me to indulge my crush!

PS: subduing a dragon king! Think of the XP!!

Book details

ISBN: 9781509830725
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Year of publication: 2018

Tarzan of the Apes (Tarzan, #1)

By Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 2 stars

Objectively, this wasn’t a very good book. It’s incredibly pulp, there’s very purple prose and the attitudes towards anyone who isn’t white and male are quite painful for a modern audience. But despite all that, it’s still fun. I did find myself laughing out loud at times at the sheer absurdity of the whole idea, but Burroughs is so intense about it that you find yourself being caught up and thinking that maybe a child raised by apes could survive, become king of the apes and teach himself to read.

The story is moderately familiar to us all. Lord and Lady Greystoke are marooned on an island and die, leaving their baby son to be raised by a tribe of apes. He survives to become Tarzan, later meets Jane and falls in love.

Entertaining but despite the cliffhanger ending, I won’t be seeking out the next volume (although if it’s out of copyright, I might track down an electronic copy just for the next chapter or two to resolve the cliffhanger).

Book details

Publisher: Flamingo Books
Year of publication: 1912

The Jennifer Morgue (Laundry Files, #2)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Software billionaire Ellis Billington is trying to acquire a Soviet Cold War relic and use it to raise a Cthuloid horror from the deeps and Laundry syadmin and sometime agent Bob Howard is all that’s standing in his way. This time Bob is paired with an beautiful agent from the Black Chamber – the American equivalent of his agency – and finds himself playing baccarat in the Caribbean with a pistol under his tuxedo jacket instead of his trusty smartphone and the oddest desire for a martini.

I really enjoyed the second in Charles Stross’s ‘Laundry’ novels. Bob Howard is an engaging protagonist and you feel for him all the way through as everyone around him seems to know more than he does and he stumbles from one apparent disaster to the next trying to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing and then doing it. And it’s certainly nice to see a systems admin type geek getting the front and centre role!

This seems to be Stross’s love-letter to the spy genre, with lots of Bond references and high-tech gadgets thrown in, all with a Lovecraftian undercurrent and some neat twists. Not to mention with the addition of a suite of hacking tools in a USB stick hidden in his bow-tie and a keyboard in his cummerbund. Although Stross left the software world behind as the dot-com bubble burst, his knowledge of the subject is up-to-date enough and fond enough to pass muster.

The bonus short story at the end takes us away from the high-flying spy world and back to the back-biting inter-departmental rivalries within the Laundry (sometimes literally) for a humorous story of an all too real experience with an MMORPG. The afterword in which Stross analyses and pays tribute to Bond and the spy genre is the icing on the cake.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495705
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2006

The Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2)

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 4 stars

Barely has Librarian/spy Irene settled into her new role as Librarian-in-residence on Vale’s world than her Dragon assistant Kai is kidnapped, and it’s up to Irene, acting alone, and without help from the Library, to get him back, and possibly prevent a war.

The second volume in Genevieve Cogman’s excellent Invisible Library series is, if possible, more self-assured and fun than the first. There’s no sign of second-book nerves here. Cogman throws us into the middle of the action and then back-tracks from there; an old trick, but an effective one, and one that Cogman’s writing is good enough to pull off with aplomb. It takes a while to get to Venice, the masked city of the title, but once we do, the city that the author draws for us is beautiful to behold. It’s evocative, dangerous and lovely to read.

While the apparent Big Bad of the series, the disgraced former Librarian Alberich, remains off-stage for this book, the villain of the piece, the powerful Fae Lord Guantes, is just as effective and, in combination with his wife, quite the foil for Irene. Lord Silver returns as a decadent Fae aristocrat combining playing for power with playing with people in a turn that makes me sort of want to scrub myself down. He’s a lovely character. The rest of the supporting cast is mostly just sketched, something which works well for the Fae, given their embrace of narrative and storytelling roles. I would like to see Vale be slightly better developed, and become more than just a Holmes-clone, though.

Still, that’s just a little niggle in a series that has been, to date, a joy to read. I mean, for book-geeks like people who hang out at GoodReads, what’s not to love about a kick-ass female librarian who can rewrite reality around her! Roll on volume three.

Book details

ISBN: 9781447256250
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 2015

King Solomon’s Mines

By H. Rider Haggard

Rating: 3 stars

The hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain is engaged by Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain Good to travel into unknown parts of Africa in search of the legendary mines of King Solomon – not for the wealth, but to try and find Sir Henry’s missing brother, who was last heard of going in search of them himself. The intrepid trio, together with their native manservant Umbopa must face many dangers before and after they find their destination.

I first encountered Allan Quatermain not through the works of H. Rider Haggard, but those of Alan Moore, via The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I would probably not given this volume a second glance if I hadn’t recognised the protagonist from Moore’s story.

I’m glad that I did though, as it’s a fair rip roaring adventure. As with so much other literature of the period, especially that set in the Empire, it does need some cognitive filtering though. You’ve got to remember when and by whom it was written: it is very much a book of its time, and its treatment of non-white characters reflects that. In saying that, it’s not as bad as some in that regard, but the almost unconscious assumption that white men are the superior race feels difficult to a 21st century reader.

And I must confess that I laughed out loud when they pulled the convenient eclipse stunt, although to be fair, it wasn’t the worn, laughable trope that it is now when the book was written.

So a fun adventure, but one that needs to be read as a period piece and has all the difficult racial problems of its era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140350142
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1885

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