2014 book log: 2) Sam Starbuck — The City War

February 21, 2014

Roman Senator Marcus Brutus is a patriot, devoted to the Republic. Many of his days are spent actively working for the Republic, protecting the system he believes in. His main respite is the occasional trip to his country villa in the company of his dearest friend, and lover, Cassius. But his tireless work may not be enough, not when the consul Julius Caesar is taking more and more power to himself. When Cassius first proposes a drastic solution, Brutus rejects the idea, but as the months go by, it becomes ever more obvious that given enough time, Caesar will overthrow the Republic and make himself emperor.

I bought this because I love Sam’s fanfic, and expected him to do a good job of original fiction drawing on historical fact. I wasn’t disappointed. This is one of those novels where I think it can be enjoyed both by readers who know nothing about the historical characters, and by readers familiar with the historical story, or with Shakespeare’s play. There’s a solid story here that fleshes out the basic facts and brings Brutus to life as a real person, a decent, honorable man faced with a choice between evils. His decision is not a simple one, and is made over the course of months, as more and more evidence accumulates of what Rome’s future could be if Caesar is not reined in.

And it’s not just Brutus who’s brought to life here. There’s a good exploration of Cassius and his motives. In addition, there’s a brief but lovely portrait of Brutus’s wife Porcia, and a marriage that is a loving partnership and friendship, not just a useful front for a gay man. Along with the historical characters, there’s original character Tiresius, a teenage runaway taken on by Brutus as a horseboy. Tiresius has secrets to hide, but as Brutus discovers more about the boy’s troubled relationship with his father, it provides him with insight into his own troubled relationship with Caesar, a man who may or may not be his biological father. The interactions between the characters create a rich portrait of a situation where there is no easy right and wrong.

One of the problems with writing historical fiction is that historical people could have very different moral values and beliefs, often ones that don’t sit well with a modern reader. In trying to make a lead character synpathetic, it’s easy to slip into the trap of turning him or her into a twenty-first century person in fancy dress. This book does a superb job of presenting the characters in their proper context, with believable explanations for their attitudes and beliefs about various issues.

It’s not a romance, because it follows Marcus Brutus and his relationships with Cassius and others in the months leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar, and anyone who’s familiar with either the history or Shakespeare’s play will know that Things Do Not End Well for the conspirators. But well researched as far as I can tell, beautifully written, and I’d recommend it to someone looking for historical fiction with an LGBT theme.


at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

Book log 2014 – 1) Charles Stross — Overtime

January 12, 2014

I have not abandoned the book log for last year, but I’m going to get caught up with this month’s while I can still remember them.

Cthulhu Christmas-themed novelette set in the Laundryverse, a couple of books into the series timeline. There’s just about enough backstory that I think someone completely new to the Laundryverse could enjoy this, but you’ll get a lot more fun out of it if you already know at least a little about the world it’s set in.

Bob Howard works for a branch of the British secret service which is devoted to putting off for as long as possible the forthcoming invasion of our universe by the eldritch horrors from beyond time and space. Except it’s still the civil service, with all that implies about audit trails and HR…

Being confined to a hospital bed by your last field assignment is no excuse for not putting in your annual leave request on time, so Bob’s left minding the office phone over Christmas as Duty Officer. The upside is triple pay. The downside — sometimes you have to earn that triple pay. It’s Christmas Eve, and the Bringer of Gifts will be visiting all the boys and girls, even the ones at work. And especially the ones who work in the Laundry.

Lovely satire of the office Christmas party and life in the civil service under austerity measures, with a large helping of geeky jokes, and good fun to read. It was a Hugo nominee for good reason.

Originally published and still available as a free read at Tor.com, but also now available formatted as a cheap DRM-free ebook.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Kobo, Tor.com

book log June 2013

January 1, 2014

Onward with the book log… Again pretty skimpy, but check out (30) because it’s good and it’s in the BVC 50% off sale until 6th Jan.

26) Ian Rankin — The Flood
Picked this one up, and put it down again within a few pages — not because I thought it was poorly written, but because I discovered that I really wasn’t in the mood to read this style of story. I’ll probably give it another go at some point.

27) Agatha Christie — A Pocket Full of Rye
Re-read of Miss Marple novel, previously reviewed here: http://www.librarything.com/work/29788/reviews/71474847

28) James Blish – Jack of Eagles
“Oh, look, SFGateway is republishing books I haven’t read in years!” It has some issues seen through 21st century eyes, but is still a worthwhile exploration of psi powers.



29) Francis Durbridge — Tim Fraser Again (audiobook)
Another case for engineer turned secret agent Tim Frazer, definitely of its time but a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. Unabridged on 2 CDs and read by Anthony Head. There are some good detailed reviews on Amazon UK. It’s available on Amazon US, but might actually be cheaper to order from the UK at the moment.

30) Chris Dolley — Reggiecide

(Note: I received a free review copy of this through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.) An entertaining steampunk pastiche of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. It’s one of a series of shortish stories about gentleman private detective and silly ass Reggie Worcester, his automaton valet Reeves, and his fiancee Emmeline, In this one, the chaps have to investigate the disappearance of Guy Fawkes, who has been revived as a Promethean by one of his descendants. Alas, Fawkes has but one thought left in his head… I found that it worked well even though I hadn’t read the earlier stories. Good fun if you like speculative fiction and Wodehouse.

It’s also in the BVC sale – 50% off until 6 January… http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/reggiecide/

31) Margery Allingham — Police at the funeral (audiobook)
Re-listen of an Albert Campion abridged audiobook.

32) Nisi Shawl (Editor) — Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
Limited edition fundraiser anthology from Book View Cafe, which is superb and deserves a proper review when I’ve re-read it. No longer available, alas.

book log May 2013

December 30, 2013

20) Alexander McCall — In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Sixth in the series about the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The usual collection of small and large puzzles for the ladies to solve, and two new characters for the series. Mma Ramotswe knocks a gentleman off his bike, and thereby gains a new staff member for the joint premises of the detective agency and the garage. Mma Makutsi joins a dance class and thus acquires a new friend. As ever with this series, gentle humour and believable domestic mysteries make this a pleasure to read.


21) Sayers — The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (audiobook)
Superb BBC full cast dramatisation, with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. If you’re a Sayers fan, this radio dramatisation is well worth getting.


at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

22) Georgette Heyer — Venetia
One of Heyer’s Regencies. There are several excellent reviews on LibraryThing, so I will merely say that I adored it.


23) Gladys Mitchell — The Twenty-third man
Another outing for the inestimable Mrs Bradley, this time on holiday to the Canary Islands, and a cave with a somewhat erratic number of mummies of ancient Kings. As usual for this series, enjoyable murder mystery with a fair bit of macabre humour.


24) Mark Coker — Secrets to ebook publishing
The head of self-publishing company SmashWords offers some useful advice on self-publishing via ebooks. While it’s slanted to using SmashWords, it’s wider-ranging than that. It’s free to download, and the contents are useful and well-written. Available from SmashWords, obviously, but also on Amazon and presumably other platforms.


25) Edward Marston — The Merry Devils
Second in Marston’s mystery series set in an Elizabethan theatre troupe. Enjoyable read.


book log April 2013

December 30, 2013

14) Oscar Wilde — The Picture of Dorian Grey
Lots of reviews and critiques out there already, so I’ll simply say that I liked it.

15) Gladys Mitchell — Watson’s Choice

28th Mrs Bradley mystery. Mrs Bradley is invited to a weekend country house party thrown to celebrate the Sherlock Holmes anniversary. Naturally, someone provides a real life mystery, complete with a real live Hound of the Baskervilles. The plot wanders a bit, but it’s still a lot of fun if you’re a Holmes fan. I suspect that it will be less fun if you’re not, as the book is stuffed with Holmes references and jokes.


at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

16) Mary Stewart — Stormy Petrel

Romantic suspense set on a remote Scottish Island. the story’s fairly simple, and the appeal is in watching the interplay of the characters, and the evocative descriptions of the island and its way of life. It has mixed reviews, and I can see why; but I liked it a lot.


at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

17) EM Forster — Where Angels Fear To Tread

There are plenty of other reviews, so I will only note that I liked part of the novel, but it didn’t quite gel for me even though I like this sort of social satire. I don’t regret the time spent reading it but am not inclined to re-read. It’s out of copyright in some countries, and thus available on public domain sites.


18) Agatha Christie — Death on the Nile (audiobook)

Abridged audiobook on 3 CDs, read by David Timson. Heiress steals friend’s fiancee, friend starts blatantly stalking, even unto the honeymoon cruise on the Nile. Heiress is found murdered, and as the husband points out, the ex-friend has an obvious motive. The one problem is that she couldn’t possibly have done it. Nor could any of the other people the heiress has provided with motives. The abridged audiobook has been well edited for the plot, but does by necessity skimp on the character development and social observation. There’s also an unabridged audio edition, read by David Suchet, which I’ve not yet listened to.


at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

19) T Baggins — Fifteen Shades of Gay (for Pay)

Contemporary m/m romance, and yes, the title’s riffing off That Book. What it isn’t is a rip-off of That Book. It’s a thoughtful and well-written look at men coming to terms with their sexuality, seen through the eyes of a young actor who takes on male escort work to pay for his sister’s chemotherapy, even though he’s straight. The blurb for the book tells you all you need to know about the plot, and there’s little point in rehashing it. It’s a plot that has the potential to be very cliched, but Baggins shows what a skilled writer can do with the concept, and the book is a joy to read.

It’s an m/m romance, so of course the POV character isn’t straight after all. But this isn’t a gay-for-you story. There’s a solidly laid foundation for a character who is in deep denial about his bisexuality, and has good reason to be that way. It’s Andrew’s story, so we see his character grow and change the most; but there are also good portrayals of men who aren’t in denial to themselves, but are closeted to their family and have different ways of coping with that. Perhaps it edges over into fairytale territory with how quickly Andrew comes to accept having gay sex without accepting that he’s bi, but the story’s good enough to carry it.

Be warned that it has the potential to be triggery for readers who’ve had to deal with cancer. Baggins doesn’t dwell on the reality of living with cancer in a loved one, but doesn’t gloss over it either — the one that got me was the comment about neighbours who insist on showing their neighbourliness by just popping in to see how you are even though they’re not well themselves, and infectious. But with that one caveat, thoroughly recommended.


at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

book log March 2013

December 28, 2013

Taking advantage of the Christmas break to (very slowly) catch up on the book log. Alas, it’s long enough since I read these books that for most of them I can’t write anything in depth about them.

10) Subterranean Scalzi Super Bundle

Big ebook bundle, previously reviewed.

11) Agatha Christie — Death in the clouds (audiobook)

Abridged audiobook on 3 CDs, read by David Timson. A passenger aboard a plane between France and England is found dead, apparently of a wasp sting. Poirot rapidly finds evidence otherwise, and what appears to be the murder weapon — placed where Poirot is the most likely suspect. Poirot knows he isn’t the killer, but in proving himself innocent, he will also need to correctly identify the real killer, lest some other innocent be wrongly convicted by one of the many false clues.

The abridged audiobook is well edited, and ably read by Timson, but as always suffers somewhat from the abridgement. I enjoyed listening to it even though I haven’t read the novel in decades and remembered nothing about it; but I am minded to try the unabridged version read by Hugh Fraser the next time I want to listen to it.


Abridged audiobook ISBN 978-1405046442 (Macmillan Audio Books)
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Unabridged audiobook: CD ISBN 978-0-00-719111-6, download ISBN 978-0-00-724855-1 (HarperCollins)
at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

12) Maria Dahvana Headley — Queen of Kings

Dark fantasy novel which takes as its premise the idea that Cleopatra did not commit suicide, but sacrificed to the dark goddess Sehkmet to try to protect her country and her husband from the invading Roman army — and found that she had sacrificed her own soul as part of the price. A price paid in vain, as Octavian tricks Mark Antony into committing suicide and the Romans take her children as captives. But Sehkmet’s new servant is now immortal, and consumed with a quite literal bloodlust for revenge. Octavian will find that his conquest of Egypt and its ruling family is not complete just because the Queen appears to have died at her own hands…

Cleopatra as a newly-made vampire fighting with a goddess for control of her own body while in pursuit of her stolen children is an intriguing premise. Headley’s novel has its flaws, but she makes good on the promise to the reader to provide an unusual twist on historical fact and historical myth. I’m glad I bought this. There’s an excellent review by Snat on LibraryThing which says pretty much all I would have liked to say about the book: http://www.librarything.com/review/75919863

Amazon UK
Amazon US

13) Wilkie Collins — The Woman in White”13) Wilkie Collins — The Woman in White

One of the earliest mystery novels. I bailed about half way through, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I was having trouble concentrating on long work at the time, and this is indeed a long work. Out of copyright, and as such freely available from public domain websites such as Project Gutenberg and Feedbooks.

2013 book log 10) Subterranean Scalzi Super Bundle

December 8, 2013

This is an ebook omnibus of some of John Scalzi’s work published by Subterranean Press, which was made available for a short period at a very good price as a promotional item. The contents included three very funny short stories, two short pieces from the Old Man’s War universe, a novella, and a non-fiction essay collection on writing. They’re all still available as individual titles, and I think all worth having, assuming you like Scalzi’s writing style.


How I Proposed To My Wife: An Alien Sex Story
Trashy newspapers don’t change their methods just because the embassies downtown include the ones from off Earth…
Amazon UK, Amazon US

An Election
An insight into local election time, science fiction style.
Amazon UK, Amazon US

Questions for a Soldier
Amazon UK, Amazon US
The Sagan Diary
Amazon UK, Amazon US
A short story and a novella set in the Old Man’s War universe. I think that reading the first book of the series gives enough background knowledge to follow and enjoy these, but The Sagan Diary in particular probably isn’t going to work for anyone who hasn’t read at least the first novel.

Judge Sn Goes Golfing
Omitted for the first release, and I didn’t manage to grab the update before it went off sale, so I’ve not read this one.
Amazon UK, Amazon US

The Tale of the Wicked
Short story riffing off Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.
Amazon UK, Amazon US

The God Engines
A blend of dark fantasy and science fiction, about exactly what the title says. Starship engines that are captured gods, and a universe in which this is reality. This examination of faith and power isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but if you do like it, you’ll like it a lot.
http://www.librarything.com/work/8343179, Amazon UK, Amazon US


You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop

Collection of essays, mainly from Scalzi’s blog, about writing as a business. I’d read many of these when they first appeared, but I’d have still been happy to pay full price for this ebook. Scalzi has selected and arranged the essays in a coherent order, often with notes updating the older essays and putting them in context. The essays span a decade, and some of the early information about writing as a career is now largely of historical interest, but that historical interest is useful in understanding what has happened to writing as a business during the rise of the internet.

Scalzi has spent his adult life earning his living through writing, intially non-fiction but latterly adding fiction. He’s a great believer in teaching other writers the financial knowledge they need to manage their writing as a self-employed small business, and this collection is very much focused on writing as a business, not an art. It’s entertaining in its own right as a species of memoir, but it’s also full of practical information for writers.

http://www.librarything.com/work/2332168, Amazon UK, Amazon US

book log: John, Duke of Bedford — How to Run a Stately Home

October 12, 2013

Rather than doing my book log in strict chronological order, I’m going to go straight to some recent reads while I can still remember them. I ordered this one a couple of weeks ago on the strength of Stevie Carroll’s comment about it last month, and now I wish to share the love.

Back in 1955, the then Duke of Bedford was one of the first members of the aristocracy to open his stately home to the public as a means of raising funds to cover the running costs. He published this book in 1971, ostensibly as a “how to” manual for his (literal) peers who might be considering doing the same.

It is, in fact, packed full of genuine and useful advice for the would-be stately home entrepreneur, or indeed anyone in a service or tourism business. It’s also a highly entertaining read for the public at large. The duke was a sharp observer of human behaviour and had a bone-dry sense of humour. He combined this with what reads as a genuine appreciation of and gratitude for his customers, and a delight in sharing his possessions with other people who enjoyed them.

The book was written in collaboration with George Mikes of “How to be an alien” fame. It’s hard to tell exactly what blend of ghost-writing, co-writing and editing was going on here, but the duke was certainly capable of writing well on his own account, as he’d had a career as a journalist. It’s clear that the general observations and much of the humour came from the duke — and that the two men shared a wryly funny view of the foibles of the English. The original hardback edition is set off with illustrations by ffolkes, including a rather splendid colour illustration on the dustjacket.

It’s a short book, only 125 pages, but it had me smiling on nearly every page, and left me feeling that I would have liked to meet the duke. Very much recommended if you like this sort of book.

It’s long since out of print, but readily available online at reading copy price.

hardback at Amazon UK
paperback at Amazon UK
Amazon US

book log February 2013

October 5, 2013

It’s the return of the book log! Not a particularly detailed book log, since it’s a long time since February… But here are such thoughts as I can remember about what I read way back then.

5) Gladys Mitchell — Tom Brown’s Body

Another mystery for Mrs Bradley to solve. This one involves the murder of a junior master at a boy’s school. Mr Conway was unpopular with both boys and teachers alike, for a variety of reasons. A lot of fun, with some sharp social observation. It was first published in 1949, which has some bearing on one of the minor plot threads. One of the boys is Jewish, and subject to anti-Semitic bullying. He does engage in some stereotypical behaviour, but Mitchell, through her lead character, observes that the behaviour is in response to the bullying and not the other way around. I get the impression from this and other books that Mitchell had a low opinion of racists.

at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

6) Fiona Glass — Gleams of a remoter World

LGBT paranormal mystery, where the mystery is long in the past, and the investigator is a ghost hunter. There’s a romance sub-plot, but the emphasis here is on the mystery. I can’t write a sensible review of this one because I’ve left it so long, but I stayed up far too late to finish it, and it will be no hardship to read it again at some point in order to review it properly. You can find the blurb and the first chapter on the book’s page at at the publisher’s website.

at amazon UK
at Amazon US

7) Dick Francis – Under Orders

Another entertaining thriller set in the world of horse racing. This one features jockey turned private detective Sid Halley, pursuing leads in the murky world of online betting.

at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

8) Mary Stewart — Thornyhold

Romantic suspense novel from Mary Stewart, published in 1988, but set in the 1940s and 1950s. Young Geillis, known as Jilly has had a quietly miserable childhood, followed by leaving university early to look after her newly widowed father. Her future as a jobless spinster with no savings and no inheritance to speak of might have been bleak after his death, save for her older cousin and namesake leaving her Thornyhold — Cousin Geillis’s woodland cottage.

Jilly finds that her cousin has left her enough money to live on if she’s careful, together with all of Thornyhold’s contents. Those contents include the still room — and Cousin Geillis’s reputation as a witch. There is nothing but good in that reputation, but Jilly is still drawn into strange occurrences, some of which have an obvious rational explanation but which still leave her unsettled.

She’s even more unsettled when she meets a handsome neighbour — and then life becomes very odd indeed…

Highly enjoyable period romantic suspense, with well-drawn characters and just a touch of magic left even when the explanations are done. Definitely one I’ll enjoy re-reading.

at Amazon UK
at AmazonUS

9) Agatha Christie — The Secret Adversary

First of the Tommy and Tuppence books. It’s shortly after the end of the Great War, and a pair of bright young things are finding peacetime both rather boring and rather financially restrictive. They decide to advertise themselves as “The young Adventurers”, in the hope of finding a job. There follow many adventures in pursuit of a missing document, served with a large helping of fun and an even larger helping of red herrings. The politics are somewhat eyebrow-raising, but a reflection of the time when the book was written. I didn’t find this as appealing as the Marple and Poirot stories, but it was a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours. It’s still in print, but also now out of copyright in some countries and thus available on various public domain sites.

at Amazon UK

Hugo Awards 2013 — short story

July 4, 2013

Only 3 entries in the Hugo short story category this year, because of the 5% rule. I think this is actually a good thing, because it’s a reflection of there being so much good stuff to choose from that it was difficult for any one story to muster the minimum 5% of nominations.

Ken Liu — Mono no Aware

A young Japanese man is sitting in the control room of a generation ship, minding the solar sail. As the story cuts between his present and his memories, the story gradually reveals how and why he came to be there, and why the choice he makes at the end of the story matters so very much. Beautifully written study of loss and survival, and made me want to read the rest of the anthology it appeared in.

Aliette de Bodard — Immersion

A lot of things are stuffed into this short story. Imperialism, whether economic, cultural, or in the recent past nakedly military. Class and money. Identity, and how it ties into the imperialism. The use and abuse of technology. Common themes, but handled deftly, and with a genuine sf slant to them. There’s some superb world-building done in a short story word count, and characters whose fate I care about. This one’s my pick for the Hugo, although it was a hard choice between this and Ken Lui’s story.

Kij Johnson — Mantis Wives

Take praying mantises, give them human intelligence and emotions so that we can identify with them — and leave them their insect behaviour patterns, described in beautiful language that heightens rather than hides the horror of what’s going on.

I can see why this made the Hugo ballot. But it really doesn’t work for me. Not voting for this one.


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