February 2008 Archives

The Sarantine Mosaic is one of Kay's historical fantasies. The book is based on history, to some extent. The world of Sarantine Mosaic is based on the Byzantine Empire, with many historical details matching. The results reminds one of ancient Rome with a twist. There are some supernatural elements, but mostly the level of fantasy is low.

The two books tell a story of a mosaic-maker Crispin, summoned from provinces to decorate a new, glorious church with mosaics. In the first book, Sailing to Sarantium, Crispin arrives to Sarantium and is immersed in political intrigues and religious tensions. The court of the Emperor is full of scheming enemies, it seems, and Crispin finds himself part of their plans.

In the second book, Lord of the Emperors, Kay brings in new characters, while continuing Crispin's story. The actions get louder and the tension gets really high. Kay is a master story-teller and spends the first 200 pages or so describing the events of a single day. He goes backward and forward, showing the point of view of all his characters. It's a really wonderful piece of writing and makes the book very hard to put down: you just need to know what happens to this or that character.

The Sarantine Mosaic is definitely one of my favourite fantasy books ever. Any fan of historical fiction should check it out, because despite the invented world, it's really rather low fantasy, the world seems rather real. The book is also full of political scheming and court intrigue for those who cherish that kind of thing. It's really rather excellent book. [ Sailing to Sarantium at Amazon.co.uk ]Lord of Emperors at Amazon.co.uk ]The Sarantine Mosaic at LibraryThing ]

BTT: Heroine

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From Booking Through Thursday:

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

That's a hard one. I read lots of science fiction, which doesn't really shine with a) female leads b) interesting, memorable protagonists in general. I'm more interested in twisty, captivating plots than deep, lifelike characters.

However, one female character stands out: Eliza from Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy. The story of the girl stolen to Barbary slavery who becomes a key manipulator in the whole European political scene, all the while suffering from various setbacks and the lack of respect women had in the 17th century where the book is set. She's smart and she's powerful, but in a very subtle and fascinating way.

Then of course there's Hermione Granger - is there a bookish nerd who doesn't love her? Mrs. Charbuque of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque is more of an antagonist than a protagonist, but charming nevertheless. I also liked Mag from Ombria in Shadow.

Of my recent reads, Four Ways to Forgiveness has interesting female characters (but then again, that describes most of Le Guin's books).

Max Barry: Jennifer Government

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Jennifer Government is a satirical tale of future, where large corporations rule. Sure, there's government, but it's no more a player than the corporations and the mighty corporate alliances are more powerful than any government. People identify to the corporation they work for: one of the main characters, for example, works for Nike and is called Hack Nike.

The idea sounds good, but unfortunately the book doesn't live up to the promise. It starts ok, but gets nowhere. The book is full of uninteresting characters: there are too many of them, and you don't really care about any of them. The dialogue is bland and the many action scenes are just confusing. The plot is at times silly or just uninteresting.

What comes to satire, Ben Elton's books work much better. Jennifer Government isn't a funny and sharp satire, but it's not a gloomy, believable dystopia either. It would've been a much better book, had it been one or the other and done that well. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) Jennifer Government at Amazon.co.uk ]Jennifer Government at LibraryThing ]

M. John Harrison: Light

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Space opera for the quantum age! Light is a beautiful book, written with remarkable skill. It isn't easy, that's for sure, but who cares? Reading it is a pleasure, whether you understand everything or not. Well, to be honest, this is certainly not for everybody: the book has about the same number of five-star and one-star reviews on Amazon.

The book has three threads, one in our time and two in distant future. All are, of course, connected in clever ways. In our time, we follow Michael Kearney, a researcher and a serial killer. He's a curious fellow, unpleasant yet fascinating. In future, we meet K-ship captain Seria Mau, who has given up her humanity in order to command a rather amazing spaceship. Ed Chianese is an ex-pilot turned into a virtual reality addict, a twink. His part of the book is overflowing with interesting ideas, it's an interesting world he lives in.

Kearney's bit reminded me of The Course of the Heart, another novel by Harrison. This one's better, though, as I enjoyed the science fiction parts more. I found Light quite impressive and while most readers will probably agree Harrison's prose is beautiful, many will still find the book unsatisfying or even frustrating. Proceed with care! [ Light at Amazon.co.uk ]Light at LibraryThing ]

City of the Iron Fish cover

In the middle of a desert there's a city with a sense of the sea: there's a smell of the ocean and the city is full of sea gulls. Every twenty years a ritual of the iron fish must be performed to keep the city alive. The city is crumbling down and keeping up the necessary rituals when people just don't care is not that simple.

The city is an odd place, and the citizens aren't quite usual either, living in the middle of nowhere. The protagonist of the book is Tom, a history student with a passion for art like many of his fellow citizens. He ends up as a part of a love triangle, explores the limits of the worlds and just keeps on living, despite the odd things going on in the city.

City of the Iron Fish is an odd book. It doesn't seem to be very popular, which is a shame. Fans of new weird and curious cities would do themselves a favour by finding a copy. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ City of the Iron Fish at Amazon.co.uk ]City Of The Iron Fish at Amazon.com ]City of the Iron Fish at LibraryThing ]

BTT: Format

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From Booking Through Thursday:

All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

Oh, tough one! I'd probably go for nice trade paperbacks, they combine the good looks of hardcovers with lighter weight of paperbacks. Hardcovers are more beautiful items, especially compared to boring mass market paperbacks, but when reading, paperbacks are perhaps better. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers tend to have slightly larger type and more pleasant layout, which I like.

Since the world isn't perfect, my preference is very strongly towards paperbacks. Since I bookmooch, I end up sending plenty of books in mail. Paperbacks save lot of money there. I especially like thinner books, because once a book is thicker than three centimeters, the price to send it jumps up. So, my favourite book format is thin trade paperback. (The difference between trade and mass market paperbacks is something I've learned during my BookMooch years, see Wikipedia entry on paperbacks if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

I've been looking for a nice hardcover copy of Tristram Shandy for my collections, because that's a book I'd like to own and hardcover would be more beautiful. But in general I don't mind, because I'm not a book collector. I read and pass the book on, as I don't see the point in owning tons of novels I've read once and probably won't read again (there are so many books in the world I haven't read, so why read something I already know?). BookMooch has been a real blessing for me, allowing me to replace my library with new books with a rather moderate cost.

Not that I'm not a collector, says the man with 150 or so board games.

Eternals is an old Marvel comic about immortal beings called Eternals, who protect the mankind from another race, Deviants. Both of these were created by a group called Celestials. Original Eternals was the work of Jack Kirby; this new take has been written by Neil Gaiman.

In this story, the Eternals have forgotten who they are. The memories start to reappear, as surprising events threaten the whole of humanity and Eternals must rise to protect people from this cosmic danger. Let's just say the plot is confusing, bizarre and in the end, not very interesting.

So, this didn't quite catch my fancy. I've never been a fan of superhero comics, and Gaiman's touch isn't enough (and I'm not a huge fan of his comics, either). John Romita Jr.'s art is wonderful, especially the pictures spanning whole pages or spreads. I ended up flicking through the book pretty swiftly; it was nice for a quick bit of entertainment, but not much more. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Eternals at Amazon.co.uk ]Eternals at LibraryThing ]

Encryption is an old invention, probably almost as old as writing itself. There have always been secrets to hide from others. Methods of encryption have evolved, as unbreakable codes have been broken and new codes have come to replace them.

Singh goes through the history of encryption from ancients times to the quantum computers of future. The book is a nice mixture of easy-to-understand explanation, historical background and methodology of codebreaking. There are several interesting stories and legends in the book, for example the Beale codes, Navajo whisperers and the breaking of the German Enigma code. There's also a bit of archeology, in the form of figuring out the hieroglyphs and the Cretan Linear B writing. Decyphering those obscure forms of writing was quite a cryptographical feat!

I found this book absolutely charming and recommend it to anybody interested in the topic. Actually, go ahead and read even if you don't care about the topic - you'll soon find yourself very interested in cryptography, it's such a fascinating topic and such a well-written book. [ The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-breaking at Amazon.co.uk ]The Code Book at LibraryThing ]

BTT: After the Honeymoon

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From Booking Through Thursday:

Here's something for Valentine's Day.
Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven't read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

I guess I'm lucky, because I haven't had this happen to me. In general, I've been able to avoid bad books with an amazing rate. I don't know how I do it, but it's been a while since I met with a really bad book. The Swarm was pretty bad, but that was a review copy and not my own pick, and I knew nothing about the author before I read the book.

I suppose the closest I get is the case of the Three Investigators. The original series was one of my biggest childhood favourites, all the boys on my class in elementary school (when I was about nine) read them, they were very popular in our small school library. I recently reread one of them, and still found it charming.

However, I then started to read the next series, Crimebusters, and that was just shocking. It was awful, they had ruined the whole thing. The characters were all different and so wrong. I don't think I finished the first book of the new series and never continued. So there I definitely fell out of love. Since they're children's books, there's no going back, either, but maybe I'll point my son to the original series once he's old enough...

This dystopian graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd was recently made into a major movie. I loved the movie, so I was obviously interested in reading the original, and I wasn't disappointed: it's slightly different, but good.

There's been a limited nuclear war and England has survived. There's a new rule, the country is ruled by a fascist government that is strictly limiting civil liberties and freedoms. People of wrong colour and sexual orientation are killed and everything's very dystopian and grim. The protagonist of the story, an anarchist called V, sporting a Guy Fawkes mask and full of drama, is fighting against the oppression.

The story is perhaps a tad heavy with dialogue at times, but if you don't mind that, the whole of it is rather impressive. It's an emotional story and the V is an interesting character. David Lloyd's beautiful art works well with Moore's writing. Highly recommended, both the graphic novel and the movie. [ V for Vendetta at Amazon.co.uk ]V for Vendetta at LibraryThing ]

Ursula K. Le Guin is a master storyteller. This book puts together four interconnecting novellas set in the Hainish worlds of Werel and Yeowe. Yeowe used to be Werel's slave colony and Werel was under strict slave economy until very recently. That makes an excellent setting to write about freedom, equality and human rights.

The stories tackle interesting issues. For example, in the liberated Yeowe, the visible divide between masters and slaves, owners and assets, has been broken down, reluctantly, but the invisible divide between men in power and powerless women still survives. This is the topic of the heaviest of the novellas, A Woman's Liberation. The collection opens with much lighter Betrayals and the other two fall somewhere in between.

All are interesting, and I do recommend this collection both to fans of Le Guin's Hainish stories and non-genre readers interested in questions of freedom, equality and slavery. Sure, these are science fiction stories, but the science involved is more sociology than physics. [ Four Ways to Forgiveness at Amazon.co.uk ]Four Ways to Forgiveness at LibraryThing ]

BTT: But, enough about books...

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From Booking Through Thursday:

Okay, even I can't read ALL the time, so I'm guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well... What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?

I'm a board game fanatic. Actually, I think I obsess more about board games than books. Maybe. I've written a book about board games, so my two major hobbies actually come together a bit! I write about board game stuff in my oldest blog, Gameblog: I've been doing that since August 2002, so it's a bit of a dinosaur for a blog.

In case you know nothing about new quality board games, I seriously recommend you check some out. The latest and greatest titles I'd recommend to people new to board games are Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and Ingenious.

If you like books, there are good board games about Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass, A Game of Thrones, Dune and many others. Watch out, though, there are plenty of bad Lord of the Rings games around. If you're looking for a good one, there's the co-operative Lord of the Rings designed by Reiner Knizia and published by Kosmos in Germany and, I think, Fantasy Flight in the US. For two players, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is hard to beat.

I also play all sorts of other games, though video games have suffered recently. I spent huge amount of time with my toddler (that's more of a job, really) and try to write more books. I blog a lot, too.

Pierre de Fermat was a skilled amateur mathematician in the 17th century, whose most important legacy was a sentence written on a margin: "Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet," "I have invented a miraculous proof but there's not enough room in the margins for it".

What Fermat claims to have proven is that xn + yn = zn is false with all integers if n is more than two (if n is two, that is Pythagoras's Theorem and obviously true with some integers). Too bad nobody was able to repeat Fermat's proof of the theorem in 350 years, until Andrew Wiles proved it in 1995 after years of hard work.

Singh's book covers the basic history of mathematics and describes all sorts of attempts to prove Fermat's theorem, particularly Andrew Wiles' attempts. The mathematics involved are very difficult, so Singh skips most of that. The result is an entertaining book that is interesting to read even if you're not a mathematician. Singh is a skilled author of popular science books and this one is no exception. [ Fermat's Last Theorem at Amazon.co.uk ]Fermat's Last Theorem at LibraryThing ]