Archive for the Books Category

Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Posted in Books with tags , on February 3, 2015 by thecognitivekey

Terry Pratchett’s novels fall into two distinct groups, those which are very funny and engaging, and those which seem disconnected and have that feel of being written quickly without the usual due diligence. When they are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they are horrid. I think it depends on the characters who appear as the central characters. Rincewind, Sam Vimes, the witches, they all appear in jolly good readable novels. It’s as though Terry Pratchett takes more time over them because they are favourites. Novels which aren’t so strong have characters we don’t care for, the plots are shallow and I get the feeling that they have been written in a hurry to fulfil a contract, there’s usually the semblance of a joke in there but never enough to stretch to a full novel, XXXX springs to mind, Small Gods and quite a few of the ‘stand-alone’ novels where the characters are present for just the single or maybe two novels.

Terry Pratchett on song though is worth the odd near miss. So where does Raising Steam fit on the Pratchett spectrum? Raising Steam is a Moist Lipwig novel, Moist Lipwig the saviour of the Post Office and the Bank. He’s not one of my favourite characters, things are too easy for him, whatever the odds he always manages to win – he’s a great believer in deus ex machina, even for Discworld his escapes are not really credible. But to its credit the tale does have Sam Vimes and Vetinari so it could pull through.

It doesn’t though. Often Pratchett has an idea which he works and works. Soul Music: the music industry, XXXX: Australia, the links are easy to see, they don’t always make for a good book but it’s a successful formula. The theme of this book is the railway, the steam railway and maybe that is where the trouble starts because the steam engine suddenly becomes a major character but one without character, goblins play a big part, as do dwarves, the Guards but there’s never enough to pull it all together. The plot is fragmented. I think it might just have worked with the railway, but the dwarves rebellion (is this a dig at religious fundamentalism?) just doesn’t fit well. It’s as though there a few plot threads which have become intermingled without making a whole.

The whole plot is rather thin. Too many characters. Loose ends – what happened to the goblin’s underground train? I thought that might have played a part in the long journey to the dwarves hinterland, but no, it was built up as an idea but then the idea was never developed.

There is a long train ride building up to the climax. The train comes under attack, but nothing really happened, and it happened slowly and I didn’t care. As I got towards the end of the book I felt it could easily have been written by Enid Blyton. Nothing happens and everyone is happy at the end. That may be the overall impression of Terry Pratchett’s books but usually they are written with humour and he makes us care for the characters. I didn’t care for anyone here. Even the well-loved Sam Vimes and Vetinari didn’t come out well.

It’s a train crash of a story. Not one to read again. I shall go back to read about Rincewind.


High-Rise – JG Ballard

Posted in Books on January 18, 2015 by thecognitivekey

This book was mentioned briefly in a science programme on TV. I can’t remember the science programme but the book is worth a read if you have nothing else. It’s set in a 40 storey apartment block. It’s about the divisions that arise amongst the residents as the services start to decay and tensions grow. The block is stratified by class, the richest to the topmost floors the poorest to the bottom. This is presented as a natural layering of people within a high-rise as the more expensive suites are always the upper floors. Interestingly enough though, the poorest here are not what I would describe as poor, flight crew, hairdressers, TV people. All office type workers, as we go up the floors so we run through the medical professions, more media people, then in the upper storeys we have the architect and other ‘top’ professions. Ballard identifies three strata and the story follows one person from each of these strata, a chapter or two on each before returning to the first again, but always the story moves on. Not a great deal is happening, but the social tension grows, one death early on then more as the high-rise society breaks down. One thing I noticed, apart from there apparently being no-one from a manual trade resident in the building, is that as things are breaking down an awful lot of people are recording the breakdown. Filming rather than helping. The book was written in the late 1970s and so pre-dates the mobile phone and YouTube, but it’s interesting that if the situation was to happen today then we would be able to follow it closely on the internet, we would be more interested in filming that helping others.

Another point which stands out quite prominently, and is perhaps a major weakness in the book, is the role of women in the book. None of the main characters are women, the few women who do appear are weak and ‘need’ to be dominated by the male main characters. Women are either mothers or objects of desire. As I got further through the book so this came much clearer, it was as if Ballard was defining the role of women in a society which starts to fail. Maybe that was the perception of their role in the 1970s when the book was written but thinking has changed significantly since then and I feel that had the book been written in the 21st century the women would have been defined with much more prominent and influential roles. As it is they are merely unrealistic shades of women.

It’s worth a read I guess, if only to see the way women are portrayed or visualised has changed over recent decades. Changing for the better no doubt, and continuing to do so. It’s also interesting to see how Ballard describes how the failure will be received by different people, though it is all a bit destructive, at no point is there any indication that anyone in the high-rise attempts to prevent the fall into savagery. It’s a bleak one-sided view of what could happen.

Initially I thought this book would make a good film, parts of it might, but it is stuck in a 1970s time-warp, maybe no surprise as it reflects the times it was written in, but that time-warp and those ideas are of that time. There is no point revelling in those past times.

It’s a sort of 1970s Lord of the Flies, set in a ‘modern’ Britain, but without the hope of a rescue at the end. Halfway through I had thoughts I might re-read this book in the future. Now I have finished it I am pretty certain I shan’t.

Pattern Recognition – William Gibson

Posted in Books on January 15, 2015 by thecognitivekey

It’s been a while since I read any William Gibson, many years, but I do recall enjoying his books, so I was pleased to get the Blue Ant trilogy for Christmas. I am very difficult to buy for, but this seems to be the ideal gift.

Pattern Recognition is set I guess in the world of advertising, or it lives in there but drifts into other worlds. I must say that I didn’t care for the characters. All very spoiled and self-centred. The main character has a phobia about certain brand icons, removes all labels from her clothes, yet is employed by the industry to decide, without needing to provide evidence, whether a style of brand will succeed at a glance. Maybe the advertising industry does work like that, but it’s totally alien to my world and I found it very difficult to believe in. Suspension of belief is OK in a novel, but the ridiculous is not.

Very little happens throughout the book. There is a plot of sorts. It’s very thin. The action moves between London, Tokyo and Moscow. The Twin Towers gets a mention. The heroine floats through, always winning. The ending was so boring as to make me wonder if that was really it. I didn’t care at all. Everything gets wrapped up in the end far too easily, not a deus ex machina because it wasn’t a complicated enough story to warrant it. I got the impression the author was bored and couldn’t see the way out but just wanted it all to end, any way please.

The only time I raised an eyebrow of interest was when the heroine referred to Poole in Dorset as a city, I had to read that part a couple of times as it was so wrong I thought maybe I’d missed something, maybe her mistake was part of a code or something. It wasn’t.

I was never tempted to stop reading, the plot did drift along, it just never arrived anywhere and I didn’t care. The other two books in the trilogy are on the table. I will read them, I just hope they are more interesting.

Revolution – Russell Brand

Posted in Books on January 15, 2015 by thecognitivekey

Having seen the man give a pretty good performance with Paxman on why people should choose not to vote I thought it would be interesting to hear what else he has to say.

I must say that I don’t find him very funny, no that’s not true, I don’t find him funny at all. His and Jonathan Ross’ prank call to Andrew Sachs was in particularly poor taste, no surprise to me that Ross was involved as the man is a fool, interesting to see Russell Brand was involved in it. So it was with great surprise to hear him argue with some eminent commentators on politics, and even more of a surprise to hear him give a good performance. Dogged, he seemed able to pick up a point and turn it well. I was impressed, a new, different Russell Brand. Then a book to apparently support what he had been saying. He had drawn much derision from the right-wing press that he had to be doing something right to have annoyed them. The book would be worth a look.

It started off OKish an outline as to why the book had been conceived, why people shouldn’t vote, but soon it was waffle and more waffle. The topic drifted from politics, to religion then back to some sort of politics. I have tried to read this book, tried really hard, but I am just a third or so through it and it’s a struggle. He has some good phrases but he is let down terribly but the quality of his arguments. We are all entitled to a viewpoint but that doesn’t make our personal viewpoint worthy of the basis of a theoretical argument, quoting the polemic of activists doesn’t impress me. A solid philosophical basis would be good, but he hasn’t got one, or not one that is apparent.

If he’s advocating revolution where does religion come into it? It’s the antithesis of revolution. And yoga! What has yoga to do with revolution or social change? Nothing! I have had to put the book down for now. I may dip into it now and then to see if anything develops that may be of interest but I fear that the waffle and drivel will continue to spread across the pages.

I am still happy to see or hear him give politicians a hard time on current affairs shows. I now know that the arguments are thin and he makes the most of this by interrupting and sticking to the soundbites. A revolutionary for the social media age. The enlightened cipher of our time maybe.

And he still isn’t funny.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Vols I-IX 1660-1669 edited by RC Latham & W Matthews

Posted in Books on December 17, 2014 by thecognitivekey

I heard some extracts from Pepys diaries read/dramatised on BBC Radio. I am not a great history buff, I stopped learning history at school when they reached the Middle Ages. Since then my history study has been eclectic, covering the First World War (before it became popular), pieces of social development and some labour histories. I knew nothing of Pepys or his era, but there was something about the BBC readings that hooked my imagination.

The diaries were written over through the 1660s, starting in 1660 and ending in 1669 when Pepys was struggling with his sight and so stopped keeping the diary. There are 11 volumes in this set. There is a volume per year apart from 1668 and 1669 which are combined into one volume. There is also a Companion and an Index which brings it to the eleven volumes.

It’s taken a while to read The Diary, but it was well worth it. I now know a lot more about the period, I doubt there has been quite such a busy decade, the Restoration of the Monarchy, the Plague, the Great Fire of London, the war against the Dutch, it’s all there alongside the private life of Pepys, his wife and servants. It’s an interesting picture of a privileged life. I never really warmed to Pepys, his philandering and double standards exposed him as a man not to be trusted or liked. But despite a dislike for the man himself the diary is worth the effort, if only to show that the BBC version was not true to the Diary and that they had fabricated much for effect.

Would I read the Diary again – yes, given sufficient time

South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition – Sir Earnest Shackleton CVO

Posted in Books on August 27, 2013 by thecognitivekey

This is an account of an impressive achievement. The expedition set out just as the First World War started…technology was very limited. All the things we take for granted now, mobile phones, satellites, motor sledges, wind-proof clothing and so on, none of it available. Men leaving Europe for a hostile environment with no hope of any immediate rescue should there be an emergency. Are there people like that around now?

The expedition had several thrusts. The main force on Endeavour to cross the Antarctic on foot. A further force to drop supplies along the route from the other side. Superb organisation was required.

The Endeavour struggled in the ice packs and eventually was trapped in the ice and was crushed. The drew then took to the ice and lived for several months on the ice floe, eventually managing to reach land and set up camp. Shackleton was in this group and leaving the bulk of his crew on land he and 5 others took a small boat and sailed to South Georgia (about 800 miles) for help. It took 2 weeks and when they landed three of them crossed the ice bound island to reach the whaling station and help. They then picked up the remaining crew on South Georgia before returning to the Antarctic to collect the men who had been left there.

The men laying supplies lost contact with their ship (whose travails are also described), but they continued with their task in laying supply drops. Eventually they too were rescued. Three men were lost.

On their return after more than 2 years away the men signed up to fight in the war.

This book describes a way of life that probably no longer exists. It is difficult to put yourself in the minds of these men who were so exposed and likely to lose their lives at any time. Dedication to the cause in the extreme. It was a fantastic feat, despite being a failure in its overall aims. The journey to South Georgia is impressive in itself, the whole expedition is just jaw dropping.

Shackleton is a man of his time. A great leader.


Would this expedition happen today I kept asking myself. Are there such people around now? I guess there are, just the challenges are different.

The journey to Mars is looking for volunteers, a possible one-way journey – I’d do it if I was young enough. Would I have gone to the Antarctic with Shackleton? Probably not – too cold for me.

At the end of the book are a series of short scientific articles. The main scientific research couldn’t be done due to the loss of the ship, but such was the dedication to the cause that the scientists measured what they could. Most interesting of these articles was the one of whaling which recorded the rapid reduction in the numbers of whales and which proposed an international body to oversee whaling.

A good read. Lots of description about the ice, but it still manages to hold the attention and describe just how close to utter disaster the whole expedition was.

At The Earth’s Core – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Posted in Books on August 8, 2013 by thecognitivekey

It took an age to wade through the Hugo dross so it was a complete relief to be able to pick up a book and just read it through almost without pause.

This is an old book, and it shows its age in parts with the attitudes being those prevalent of the day. However I can cope with that, all books are of their time.

The important part is the story. This is a fast paced tale, a bit patchy in parts, and the hero often assumes Flash Gordon attributes in that he is supreme in so many different areas. Sporting prowess, linguistic ability…he has it all, but it all just adds to the tale. No word is wasted as he overcomes all the challenges in his path, and there is a twist at the end too. Not too much of a twist, but it’s there.

This is a fun read. A couple of days and it’s over, but the feeling of having read a good tale is palpable.