Sunday, 25 March 2012

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Well, I guess by now you're feeling the full effect of that Hunger Games hype.  I finished the second book last week, but since there's not a hell of a lot I can say without giving you SPOILERS, I thought I'd wait until the movie was out and give it a compare.

First up then - Catching Fire.  I guess it's not too much of a SPOILER to suggest that maybe Katniss Everdeen survives the Hunger Games.  And The Man isn't too happy about the way she did it.  The first half deals with the victory tour of the districts - how the events of the first book have sparked the beginnings of revolution, and how the Capitol deals with it.  The second half and we're back in the Hunger Games, but this time with a different arena, different traps and - of course - different contestants.

The good news is it's still really good.  Perhaps the first half is a little unfocussed, but I preferred how the Games panned out in this one, especially when it looks at how unrest in the outside world changes what happens in the arena.  It kept me guessing throughout about what would happen next and it sets everything up nicely for the (inevitably disappointing?) final book.

So...the film version of the Hunger Games.  It's all in there, although the survivalist aspect is taken down a notch.  The actors are good - Jennifer Lawrence in particular, but Woody Harrelson also reins it in as their drunken mentor Haymitch, who survived the games years ago.  Also props to Lenny Kravitz for looking great in gold eyeliner, Stanley Tucci for having big blue hair in a ponytail, and Wes Bentley for rocking some first class facial beardage.  The bizarre fashions in the decadent Capital are really well portrayed, and I liked how the focus often shifted to behind the TV cameras, rather than staying on Katniss all the time.

But the big failing is the action.  I don't mind them taking out some blood spurts to get it a 12A or whatever, but it's succumbed to the post-action disease which seems to be the law in Hollywod these days - "all action should be filmed by shaking a camera six inches from people's faces."  Awful, but still worth watching.  Worth reading even more.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

The end of the Roman Republic is one of my little obsessions.  I blame Rubicon by Tom Holland for so effectively bringing to life such characters as Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cato, Cicero.  Giants all, but the biggest and most fascinating is Julius Caesar.  The perfect product of the Republican system, and the man who destroyed it.

An early anecdote to highlight his coolness - in his teens Caesar was taken hostage by pirates.  He became firm friends with them, urging them to raise the ransom and promising to come back and kill them all when he was released.  My, how they laughed....

He rose to power in a pretty standard fashion - by borrowing and spending money wildly, although Caesar was wilder than any other.  Politics in the Roman Republic was a high risk game.  Everyone was out for himself, and there were no political parties, so the whole thing operated as a network of patrons and clients.  Favours owed and called in at the right time.  Caesar gained a reputation as a good friend to have, and became peacemaker between the two big rivals: Pompey, Rome's greatest general and Crassus, Rome's richest man.

And when he wasn't making friends with the most powerful men in the Senate, Caesar was in bed with their wives and sisters.  It almost seems like a compulsion for him.  And if we know about it more than two thousand years later, you can bet they knew back then as well.   Somehow when he did end up stabbed to death, it wasn't over a woman.

So Caesar was at the centre of everything, but there was a problem.  War and politics weren't seperate worlds at Rome.  The only way to pay back your debts (apart from attempting a coup, like the notorious Cataline) was to be named a governor and, ideally, win a war.  He went to Gaul, took advantage of some tribal tension and ended up ruling the whole of modern day France in just a few years.  The people back in Rome loved him - and many of the other senators grew to hate and fear him.

I'm still a little puzzled by exactly how the Civil War started.  The senators, led by his former son in law Pompey and pious "voice of old Rome" Cato wanted to stop him running for consul, or having a triumph through the streets, or both.  But Caesar had a battle hardened army who fought for him, not for Rome. So he crossed that Rubicon and the die was cast.

What really struck me about the Civil War was how Caesar used generosity as a weapon.  He was amazingly merciful to those who'd taken up arms against him and could credibly paint himself once again as the peacemaker.  He cursed his bitter rival Cato for taking his own life before Caesar could forgive him.

He ruled as dictator (but not a tyrant) for just a few years, and most of the work he started was unfinished.  He did invent the leap year though, so kudos for that.  But he wasn't careful enough to avoid being seen as the man who would be king.  Romans didn't like kings, and his successor Augustus was much smarter in the way he handled it.  He kept the apparatus of republicanism, but in reality turned it into a monarchy.   Meanwhile Julius Caesar was made a god.

I admit this book was sometimes a bit of a slog to get through - Roman names and positions are very complicated, and I drifted in and out of many of the military campaigns - but it was well worth finishing.  Not just for getting a clearer picture of this awesome man, but for the other players and the world they lived in.  Expect more Roman stuff pretty soon - I can't get enough of it.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Vinge is kind of a big deal in the science fiction world.  He coined the term singularity in this paper which was hugely influential among fellow writers as well as the tinfoil hat brigade.  I'd never read any of his stuff before, but this book is fantastic.

It sounds corny, but he's literally put a new dimension into SF: The Zones of Thought.  The idea is intelligence and technology don't work at the the centre of the galaxy.  Those are the Unthinking Depths.  Further out is the Slowness where Earth lies.  Beyond this is the - well - Beyond.  Here's where you hit science fiction paydirt.  Faster than light travel, instant communication and millions of alien civilisations living and interacting in this narrow strip around the edge of the galaxy.  Beyond that is where it gets interesting.

This means when ships travel deeper, it's got the feel of a submarine battle.  They slow down, technology stops working and they can't talk to anyone further up.  It's also a neat explanation for the Fermi paradox - any aliens which are advanced enough to make contact with Earth are thousands of light years away in the Beyond, zipping about like Buck Rogers.

I also love the deep time in this book.  It's way in the future but humans are still a pretty young player in the Beyond.  Their mythology doesn't come from Earth, but from a jungle planet further out called Nyjora where humanity built itself back up from the dark ages to space travel.  They often talk about chivalry in the Age of Princesses, and the steam engines of Nyjora during the industrial revolution.  They know about Earth - theoretically - but it's this second history of humanity which is their frame of reference.

And this is all backstory for something even better - a first rate fantasy novel on a planet of gestalt sentient aliens.  Each "individual" is a pack of dog-like beings whose individual members aren't themselves sentient.  As well as a fascinating look at how an intelligent lifeform like this could operate, it's also a great adventure story, with human children learning about the world and some proper villains up to no good.  Like something from a Nyjoran fairy tale.

I've already got the follow up to this -  A Deepness in the Sky which is set thousands of years earlier, and there's a direct sequel set on the same planet which is just out called Children of the Sky, but word is it's a bit disappointing.  I'll read it anyway.

I owe a review of the big Caesar biography I've been listening to for months and have now finished (he dies) and I should soon be finished another Le Carre and the second Hunger Games book.  My light blogging of late I'm going to blame on Murakami's 1Q84, which I read two thirds of and couldn't be bothered finishing.  What went wrong Haruki?

Monday, 5 March 2012

Wild Summer by Stephen Richards

Alright, declaration of interest first.  This author is in fact my stepdad, and I got a sneak preview of this because I was proofreading it.  Last year he and my mum spent most of the year in one of these big RVs travelling around the USA.  Most of the time they just stayed overnight parked outside Wallmart and the like.  So far they've managed to avoid being shot by the urban youth.

I already had a read through of Steve's first volume - Tornado Spring - but it was a pretty rough draft so I didn't review it here.  That book included the buying of the RV, trawling up the east coast from Florida and running away from a tornado in a supermarket carpark.

This volume picks up in the Chicago area as the pair take up the second leg of their trip - across country into Yellowstone Park, then over into the Pacific North West and a brief brief detour into Canada, before heading down the coast to San Fransisco.

You've got some great descriptions of the landscapes and the mood all along the way, from the weird vulcan phenomona of Yellowstone to the mile upon mile of flat farmland in the Midwest to the romantic mist covered coastline of Washington.  There's also plenty of wildlife along the way - bears, whales, elk and trout.  Lots of trout.  And salmon.  In fact, there's lots of fishing in general, but these are probably my favourite bits of the book, and I'd be hard pushed to describe myself as a keen angler.  What makes these sections work is that the action is clear and exciting and the passion shines through.

Another aspect I really liked was the practicalities of getting a big RV across America.  What can go wrong, how you can fix it, how to drive up and down inclines without destroying your brakes.  Not stuff you usually get in a travel book unless it's for comic value, but I found it interesting.

Book Three - Desert Winter - will be out soon.  Luckily I feature in this final volume so I know it can't be all bad.  But it does mean more proof reading for me.  Errant apostrophe's are my vampires and all must be destroyed.   Arghh!

You can get all these in paperbacks or kindle on for a dirt cheap price.  Yeah, that's right - shameless plug.  Suck it up, freeloaders.

Right, now I've got three books about the same trip written by my mum which I need to check the punctuation on....