Thursday, 19 August 2021

My Top Twenty Books of all time - Fiction & Non-fiction - July 2021

I didn't think I'd ever do this sort of entry on Digital Bibliophilia. However, inspired by a recent new entry in to this list, and fuelled by a couple of pints on my first night out drinking with work colleagues in nearly two years, I find myself unable to sleep and worried that anything I read will be forgotten in a haze of alcoholic fuzz the next morning. Therefore here we go - I hope it's mildly interesting or leads to someone picking up ones of the books in this list because I think they are fabulous.

So here we go, and in no particular order...

Collected Stories: Raymond Chandler (Everyman's library, No.257) (2002)

I love Chandler. Reading any of his works of fiction is a pleasure every human being should experience at least once in their life. Although his novels are mostly works of genius, I actually preferred this massive collection of his short-form works. This is one book you can't carry around with you - at over 1,300 pages you'll end up with forearms like Popeye the Sailor. Just sit back in your favourite wing-back chair with a bottle of whisky and savour every moment.

The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam (1995)

I never would have dreamed a book like this would end up being something I'd ever admit to saying was an all-time favourite of mine. I do like to read Charles Dickens every now and again (there's a Dickens biography staring at me on my bookshelf every day - I'll get around to it at some point). This is very much influenced by Dickensian tales. A labyrinthine colossus of a novel over 1,200 pages in length in paperback form that follows the life of a Victorian young man who has no memory of his father, and whose doting mother holds a precious codicil of a last will and testament in a small trinket that never leaves her side. As his life takes turn after turn, and tragedy after tragedy befalls him - he never loses sight of the fact that something on that document hides the secret to his claim to a family fortune. A mesmerising and compelling masterpiece of a novel that is even meticulously structured (word by word) so that the sentence in the middle of the book reveals the secret to our protagonists background (good luck counting the words!).

Shackleton (1989)

A biography of Ernest Shackleton, the famous polar explorer, by Roland Huntford. There are quite a few books on Shackleton by now, but this was one of the earliest, if not the first, to really cover his life, and his astonishing exploration to the South Pole. If you think the notion of old-fashioned heroes is a myth - you need to read the true story of how this man lead his colleagues out of the jaws of hell and, quite literally, across the frozen landscape of Antarctica whilst dragging a boat behind them so they could sail to a desolate island; and then leave them behind whilst he went off on an almost suicidal mission to go and seek out a rescue party to come back to save them. A stone-cold (no pun intended) winner for best biography I'll ever read in my life. Forget anyone who says Captain Scott was a better hero - this guy makes Scott feel like a wuss. If you only have room for one biography on your bookshelf - get this!

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Imager (The Imager Portfolio #1)

Author: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
eBook Publisher: Tor Books
eBook Date: Mar 2009
Pages: 529
Cover Art: Donato Giancola

Off of the back of the majestic light-fantasy/historical mashup that was The Initiate Brother, I was in the mood to spread my fantasy genre wings a bit more broadly, so I decided to delve headfirst into heavyweight territory and begin a series by prolific author L E Modesitt Jr. This series is collected together as The Imager Portfolio and consists of a total of twelve books at the time of writing.

This is full on fantasy with a captial "F". However, rather than wrapping this up in medieval society trappings with winged horses, dwarves, elves, hobbits and the suchlike, here we have a refeshingly advanced setting more in common with the Industrial Revolution and early Victoriana where there are (at least in this first book) no fantastical creatures to populate the pages or plot.

Modesitt has been around a while, and I was already well aware of his range of work and knew that he invests himself into fairly lengthy book series (The Saga of Recluse being the one I see everytime I wander around a bookshop - I think he's up to something like book 22 by now?), so I was prepared to invest a sizeable chunk of my time, and had an idea that with The Imager Portfolio already being listed at twelve installments of fairly lengthy novels this was going to potentially not be a fast-paced opener.

I wasn't wrong, Imager takes its time to tell its' story. However, Modesitt does it with such panache and skill that you cannot be anything but impressed. He has achieved that uncanny talent of making a day-to-day journal seem a lot more interesing than it should be. Hats off to him for that. Just when you start to think, oh this is getting a bit repetitive now, he pull out a surprise or two to keep things fresh or buck you up out of your seat and keep reading. Imager is one of those books that keep you wanting to read "just one more chapter before bed". It helps that the chapters are short too - I always find myself reading novels with short chapters so much quicker than ones with the opposite.

The Initiate Brother (Book #1)

AuthorSean Russell (aka Sean T. Russell)
Publisher: Daw Books
Publication Date: 1991
Pages: 480
Cover Art: Michael Whelan 
Not currently available in eBook format, but available as an Audiobook.

The Initiate Brother by Sean Russell is a long story split into two volumes, of the first half consists mainly of a huge cast of characters with weird-sounding names talking to each other, and not a lot of action or adventure until the final quarter. Contrary to how that introduction might sound, I was so thoroughly impressed by it, that it has forced it's way in to my top twenty favourite books of all time. Depending upon how the second half in this duology pans out, it could even work its way into my top ten of all time - it was that good.

Attributing a genre to this novel written in the early nineties is slightly misleading. Although the setting and background are very heavily influenced by Chinese/Japanese culture, author Russell has created his own fantasy world that could easily read like it has been directly lifted from ancient historical novels such as The Tale of Genji or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But it's relationship to the fantasy genre is so slight that it almost takes a back seat and gives the reader the impression that they are actually reading a lost novel from our own history.

The Initiate Brother is set in a land dominated by the Empire of Wa, where the ruling Emporer, Akhantsu II, controls the land and waterways over his subjects. To the north the empire of Wa is protected from being invaded by savages by one of many House Clans. The empire has two main religions, the Botahist Order and the Tomsoian Church.

In terms of social status and heriditary, below the Emporer there are many Houses competing for the right to become the next ruling dynasty. Pacts and feuds are commonplace between many of the families, who are all simultaneously grovelling to the current Imperial power whilst scheming behind everyone's backs to futher their own needs and aspirations. Marriages between Houses, or killing off a rival political opponent to greatly advance ones status is a commonplace part of imperial court life.

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo #1)

AuthorDavid Wingrove
Publisher: New English Library
Publication Date: 1989
Pages: 480
Cover Art: Jim Burns (Edition shown)
eBook Publishers: Fragile Media
eBook Date: Jul 2017

After having had such an amazing time reading the Asian-influenced first part of The Initiate Brother, I looked around for another book with a simialr theme. I was immediately tempted by my old collection of Chung Kuo novels.

I've toyed with Chung Kuo since it was published in the late eighties. I was remember being completely sold by my first sight of Book 1, The Middle Kingdom, when it came out with a beautiful cover that was predominently red around the borders, with Chinese dragons drapped over the top corners, and the image of an old Han sitting on a throne (see image below). Over the following thirty years, since I first tried to read the opening volume, it has haunted and daunted me to complete it. I'm going to try REALLY HARD this time to see it through to the bitter end (more on the end down below). But the sheer size of Chung Kuo can be a little intimidating.

The original run lasted for eight weighty tomes, and even though they are brilliantly written by author, David Wingrove, by their very nature I found them a bit difficult to get into at first. For me, the barrier holding me back was the inherent premise of the tale being told. You see, Chung Kuo (the new name for Earth) is about and  alternative future history where Chinese culture has become the dominant power on our planet, and because of that premise the number of characters with Chinese names takes a bit of getting used to. If you can get past this, then you will be truly rewarded with an excellent read.

Over a turbulant period (covered in later editions - see below) of Earth's history, the Chinese (or Han as they are referred to in these books) take over the running of our planet, and they impose their own culture and principles. As they rise to power they begin construction of a city that begins to expand across every continent. 

At the start of this first book, it has been 200 years since the upheavel and the City has all but covered every land mass apart from a few choice areas owned by the very rich and land that has been reserved for food production. The city is constructed of 'stacks' made up of 30 decks, with each deck having 10 levels and in total rises nearly 300 levels and 3 miles above the planet surface (now referred to as The Clay). As with any class-based culture, the lower your class, the lower the level you are allowed to live on. There are even sub-levels, below a protective security net that keeps the city free of ground-dwelling animals and diseases, this is where the criminal and undesirable elements are exiled too. Even with this enormous amount of living space, the population of 34 billion people is begining to stretch the resources of the massive administration. Added to this, the Hung Mao (i.e. non-Han) race crave for change; be that more political power, money, or simply the freedom to search the stars for places to expand the human race into; they are becoming more and more reactionary. There are many powerful men in this position, and they have become known as The Dispertionists.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Kill Angel - Angel #3

Author: Frederick H. Christian
First Published1973
Fileseize/Pages: 451kb/141pp
Ebook Publisher: Piccadilly Publishing
Ebook Date: April 2014

(Note: My  numbering of the Angel series is based upon the publication order by Sphere UK)

I can't believe its been over a year since I last read a Western! I don't know why such a long time elapsed, but I'm glad I've got back in the saddle. Kill Angel is another tale of the Justice Deptartment's "get-it-done" special investigator, Frank Angel, written expertly by Frederick H. Christian (aka Frederick Nolan). I had a great time reading Send Angel back in May 2020, and I'm happy to report that Nolan entertains even more so with this exciting installment.

This time around Frank Angel is called upon to find and bring back to justice the head of the notorious Blantine clan, father Yancey Ballantine. Charged with his mission by the Attorney-General, Angel sets out to enlist the help of two friends, Chris Vaughan and Pearly Gates to travel with him into Mexico and ride right up in to the heart of the Blantine-controlled town of Agua Caliente. They not only have to contend with a town full of Blantine henchmen, but also the sons of Yancey named Harry, Burke and Gregg.

Frank Angel devises a plan to bring the Blantines out of thier hideout with a brazen entrance to Agua Caliente's saloon. Its a risky venture, as he throws himself into the lion's den with the help of his two partners - but somehow they need to find and capture the ring-leader who was responsivle for the mass murdering rampage of an entire town.

Nolan provides an excellent book. Afast, no-nonsense Western that skirts around the edges of the Piccadilly ultra-voilence that dominated at the time. His characters of suitable balck or white, and the action incridibly satisfying. There are a couple of stand-out scenes, a nighttime attack by local apache indians, and a show-down in a dead-end canyon.

My only negative was that possibly the order the Sphere paperbacks as published in the UK might mean that this was the first appearance of Angel's friends, Vaughan and Gates - whereas I have a sneaky feeling that perhaps they had already been characters in one or two of the other Angels books if they had been released in the correct order? I can't be sure, but the way both of the men are introduced, its cleaer that Angel has back-story with them, which as a reader I wasn't privvy too.

If you are after a neat, solid quick Western with a just a touch of bloody action, this could be the one for you. I really enjoyed this Nolan title.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Coyote Moon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Author: John Vorholt
First Published1998
Pages176 
Ebook Publisher: Simon Pulse
Ebook Date: Sept. 2017

I was so impressed with the first Buffy YA original novel, Halloween Rain that I couldn't help myself and jumped almost immediately back into the Buffy-verse and try out the next original story to be published by Pocket Books in January 1998, Coyote Moon.

This one is set between the conclusion of  Season 1 and the start of Season 2 of the television series, albeit with a non-canonical reference to Buffy having spent the summer in Sunnydale rather than in Los Angeles with her father as shown on TV.

There are some notable exceptions. This book does not feature vampire-with-a-soul, Angel, in any way other than references to him being Buffy's boyfriend; and Cordelia Chase has a very minor part in the proceedings. I initially thought that Buffy's Watcher, Rupert Giles was going to be a no-show as well, but he does eventually play an active role in the drama that unfolds.

Coyote Moon centres around a carnival that has arrived in Sunnydale during the summer. Apparently it has become a regular feature, visiting the town for many many years. Both Xander and Willow are keen to go and sample the delights of the fair, but Buffy is less convinced and considers the whole thing a bit childish. Her friends tell her that the carnival is a great place to mix with others of their own age, and many kids turn up just to show off, or flirt with each other. Reluctantly she agrees to accompany them, seeing as the summer break is about to end and the spectre of returning to high school is looming.