What You Can Get Away With » Reviews

I dropped out of the ‘reviewing every book I read habit’ while attempting it last year, and I’m not planning to pick it up. However, I do like writing the occasional book review, and as part of the concerted effort to blog here more often, expect to see the occasional one dotted in amongst the political rants.

A Dance With Dragons is obviously the fifth book in the series, so if you haven’t read the others yet, be warned that there will be spoilers. If you’re watching Game Of Thrones on TV, then this really will spoil you for stuff that’s coming up in the next season. So if you don’t want to know any more, look away now…

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2011 books: Catch up

Oops, haven’t written here for a while, and have also slipped behind on the regular reading too. Only three books finished in the few weeks since my last post, and they were:

30) A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin

The longest part yet of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and would perhaps have counted as two books if I wasn’t reading the single Kindle edition. Still very good, and an interesting depiction of a world descending into hell, with each chink of light ruthlessly extinguished as another plot comes to light.

31) Rule 34 by Charles Stross

The sequel to Halting State, Stross returns to near-future Scotland for a crime story that’s equal parts Brookmyre and Orwell. A very interesting extrapolation of current trends in society and policing, laden down with the usual rapid-fire of ideas that you expect from Stross.

32) I, Patridge: We Need To Talk About Alan by Alan Partridge (Armando Ianucci, Steve Coogan et al

The autobiography of a broadcasting legend, whose career I’ve followed since he burst to national prominence on Radio 4’s On The Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You. It reveals just how this major talent’s career has been blighted by the jealousy of lesser talents and the short-sightedness of broadcasting management (usually at the BBC). Includes a harrowing account of his descent into Toblerone addiction – I, for one, will never look on their chocolate-honey-nougat prisms with quite the same innocence from now on – though needless to say, he has the last laugh.

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I think this may be the first time I’ve read a novel by a blogger (as opposed to reading the blogs of novelists) but if others are up to this standard, then I might have to find more.

The Ministry Of Love is, as far as I’m aware, only available as an e-book from Amazon (and for a ridiculously low price), but it might be a good reason to get a Kindle, or at least a Kindle app for some other device as it’s the sort of book that will definitely appeal to the sort of people who read this sort of blog. O’Mahony’s like a benevolent version of Christopher Brookmyre, most notably in the fact that one The Ministry Of Love‘s subplots has wandered straight in from A Snowball In Hell. However, while Brookmyre’s attitude often seems to be that the whole world is going to hell and is only held back by the work of a few decent people, O’Mahony takes a somewhat more optimistic view of the human race.

More after the cut, but there be spoilers for the novel there so don’t read if you want to approach it with fresh eyes. I definitely recommend giving it a try, though – it’s easily worth £1.14 of anyone’s money.

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With the Tour de France over for another year, I decided to stretch out the experience of it a little by reading Boulting’s behind-the-scenes account of reporting on the Tour from 2003 to 2010. He’ll be familiar to viewers of cycling on ITV4 as the main field reporter for the Tour de France, and also as the presenter of the Tour Series and Tour of Britain (which means he gives Colchester the briefest of mentions late in the book).

This is the story of how Boulting went from being an out-of-his-depth football reporter dispatched to cover the Tour (the ‘Yellow Jumper’ of the title comes from his disastrous first Tour broadcast) to a passionate fan of cycling. It’s the sort of book that could have descended into Partridgean anecdotage, but while I haven’t checked, I don’t believe ‘needless to say, I had the last laugh’ features anywhere in the book.

Rather than going into the day-by-day minutiae of each Tour he’s covered, Boulting instead presents a series of vignettes about life on the tour, most of which go on to reveal a much wider picture of one of the world’s largest sporting events. We get to see what goes on to bring the Tour to TV screens worldwide, from how Gary Imlach keeps his clothing crease-free to how much of a task it is to feed a small army of journalists every day. In the process, we see how Boulting goes from being almost entirely ignorant of professional cycling to an experienced and somewhat cynical reporter. Indeed, it’s his honesty that helps to lift this book above the humdrum, and you suspect that if he was working in a sport that wasn’t as routinely scandalous as cycling, his candidness (about doping, the personalities of some of the sport’s stars and the somewhat bizarre world of Team Sky) might see him uninvited from future events.

Boulting’s an amusing writer, and one able to keep perspective on his situation. While there are complaints about what it’s like to live on the road in France amidst a moving army for three weeks, he knows that most of his readers will envy him his job and the privileges that go with it, not pity him for it. The one thing the book lacks, though, is a definite ending. When he talks about the first rumours of Team Sky’s launch in 2008, it’s almost a foreshadowing of the end of an era, but the Tour remains on ITV4, with many of the same team who started covering it on Channel 4 in the 80s still there. For those of us who’ve been watching during those twenty-five years, it’s a good read and recommended.

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Not had much of a chance to read over the last few weeks, and when I have, my time’s been occupied by this rather detailed look at life in Britain during its time as part of the Roman Empire. The focus is a bit more archaeological than historical compared to my usual reading, but still had lots of interesting information about life during the period. Not one to read if you’re looking for a simple history of the period, but the wealth of detail does make it useful and interesting if you have the time.

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Helping me keep up my average of a book a week this year, The Inheritors is Golding’s second novel (after Lord Of The Flies) and like that, it’s also a look at some of humanity’s darker impulses. Here, though, the focus is on humanity’s beginnings as seen from the viewpoint of a group of Neanderthals encountering this new type of people for the first time. Golding expertly creates a perspective that’s non-human but understandable as what’s effectively a tragedy unfolds through a mutual incomprehensibility and fear. Definitely a classic novel, and well-worth a look.

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As you might have noticed, I was off on holiday last week and A Clash Of Kings was my selection of holiday reading. Not the sort of light stuff people normally recommend for holidays, but then I was in the Lake District rather than lounging on a beach.

As ever, spoilers follow, so look away now and don’t click the link for more if you don’t want to know what happens.

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This is the final book in the Romanitas trilogy – the first two of which I read last year and wrote about here – though it’s worth noting that the first two books have been reissued by a new publisher in advance of Savage City, and there has apparently been some re-editing of them for the new releases. However, as far as I’m aware there have been no changes in the story along the way.

Anyway, the full review is after the ‘read more’ link, and I would warn you not to click it if you haven’t read the book and are planning to, as it’s almost impossible to review without dropping some major spoilers (this review by Pornokitsch attempts it, however). In capsule, though, if you’ve read the first two books in the series then you should get round to reading this as soon as possible, and if you haven’t then take a look at my review from last year.

And that’s the last of your warnings. Look away now if you don’t want to know the result.

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I have been debating whether to count this as an entire book for the purposes of numbering as it’s quite short, but deciding on including it if only to stop things from getting too complicated. However, it also says something about the story itself – Pullman has an interesting idea here, that Jesus and Christ were twins who history later conflated, but the depth and complexity of an idea like that isn’t addressed in the way you’d expect a novel to do so. In that way, it’s much more of a novella, and for me it suffers a bit from the simplicity. I often found myself comparing it to Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming – another story written by an atheist about the relationship between humanity and a self-proclaimed Messiah – and how that managed to wring a lot more interest out of similar material.

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Another bit of my attempt to widen my historical knowledge, this book does exactly what it says on the tin an provides a good overview of 200 years of Roman history. There’s obviously a limit to how much detail Scullard can provide in this overview, but he does a very good job of linking the different trends in Roman society and politics together to explain how the Republic began to crumble under the pressures its expansion had put in under, how the early Empire emerged from that process and then how it stabilised itself.

Scullard does presuppose some knowledge of how the Republic worked, so perhaps not one to read if you know nothing of the Roman systems, and sometimes the pace of events and the tide of similar sounding names can get a bit overwhelming. He also has a tendency to moralise on occasions, and I sometimes suspect that he wished he could be back in the midst of the events, advising the Senate about where they were getting it wrong and how the Republic could survive if only they’d listen to him.

Also, while Nero as the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors does seem to mark an appropriate point to stop, it does bring the narrative to a rather abrupt halt in the midst of a crisis. There’s a quick summing up of the Year of Four Emperors and the rise of Vespasian, but it perhaps needs a bit more detail to wrap up the historical narrative and show the future course of the Empire. Though as with any history of Rome, any end date is somewhat arbitrary.

All in all, a rather good history and a useful guide to the period.

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