Brief reviews of books I've read.

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Norman W. Webster, "Britain's First Trunk Line"

2015-01-19 · in Books · 120 words

The history of the Grand Junction Railway, built in the 1830s to link Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool — founding the railway town of Crewe in the process, and now forming the central part of the West Coast Main Line from Birmingham to Warrington. This is largely a paen to engineer Joseph Locke, who managed the construction of most of the line.

The author has a fine writing style and is pleasingly honest about his sources, pointing out where the historical record is lacking and where previous historians have embellished or misinterpreted the facts.

Minor nitpick: I would have liked some more maps, perhaps on the endpapers — I often found myself flipping back to the map in the first chapter!

Laurie R. King, "The Beekeeper's Apprentice"

2015-01-09 · in Books, Mary Russell · 156 words

It must have been nearly an hour later that I became aware of Holmes, sitting on a stump and tossing his jackknife repeatedly into the tree next to him.


Yes, Russell.

Is it always so grey and awful at the end of a case?

He didn't answer me for a minute, then rose abruptly and stood looking down the road towards the house with the plane trees. When he looked around at me there was a painful smile on his lips.

Not always. Just usually.

The first in a series of novels starring Mary Russell and a retired Sherlock Holmes, now living (more or less) quietly on the Sussex Downs. The mysteries aren't especially complex, but that's not really the point; it's all about the characters, and the story is beautifully written.

This is another of those books where I'd ordered the next half-dozen in the series before reaching the end — thoroughly recommended.

Charles Palliser, "Rustication"

2015-01-03 · in Books · 120 words

What follows is my transcription of a document which has lain unnoticed for many years in the County Records Office in Thurchester. It is a Journal which casts light on a murder that attracted national interest at the time but which, since nobody was ever charged with the crime, was subsequently forgotten.

That's the opening — I can't really quote from later on without spoiling it! This is a Charles Palliser Victorian mystery, more accessible than The Quincunx but no less well-researched or smartly-plotted; I read through it in one sitting, and considered it well worth trading a night's sleep for.

(This interview with the author contains minor spoilers, but gives some insight into the real-life inspirations for Rustication.)

John Beames, "Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian"

2015-01-01 · in Books · 385 words

I couldn't decide whether I preferred this quotation:

When all were seated each monk plunged his hand into the bosom of his capacious frock and pulled out a small wooden bowl, into which a young attendant poured tea from a wooden pot neatly laced with a woven covering of cane. Holding the bowls poised on their finger tips they waved them slowly round over their heads while they chanted a long, solemn litany in Tibetan, after which they drank their tea, and with many bows to the altar departed one by one. I also had a cup of tea. It was brick tea, made of broken tea-leaves, stalks and refuse cemented into a cake with bullock's blood. It is made into a thick, soupy liquid, with hot water, salt and rancid butter and, strange to say, is not nasty.

Or this one:

Each step in the manufacture and sale of salt is surrounded with the most minute precautions on the part of Government, and there is a distinct and separate kind of fraud practised at each stage. As each fresh precaution is evolved by the Board of Revenue, the Board of Smugglers invents a means of circumventing it.

John Beames was a civil servant in India in the second half of the nineteenth century. These are his unfinished memoirs, written between 1985 and 1900, and finally published in 1961. He notes that much of the content was based upon or quoted from letters he'd written to a friend; I imagine a collection of the letters alone would make for equally interesting reading.

Beames wrote his memoirs for his family to read rather than for publication, although he was also a successful author in the fields of Indian languages, literature and history. It's a pity that there was no opportunity for this book to be edited for a wider audience during Beames' lifetime; he frequently omits descriptions of places that would have been familiar to his expected readers, and the work is prefaced by a lengthy history of the Beames family. Nonetheless, there's a great deal of interesting and insightful writing here.

(I first heard this book mentioned in the fourth episode of John Kenneth Galbraith's splendidly bizarre TV series The Age of Uncertainty — which includes a dramatisation of Beames' early-morning arrival in Gujrat!)

Neal Stephenson, "The System Of The World" (reread)

2014-12-10 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 109 words

I've a sort of riddle for you, to do with guineas, was how Daniel ended the twenty-year silence between himself and Sir Isaac Newton.

The final instalment of The Baroque Cycle. Stephenson has hit his stride in terms of style and plot dexterity by this point; this is a fine example of large-scale literary engineering, with a satisfying conclusion.

There is probably little point in me recommending this book, since anyone who's made it through the first 1800-odd pages of the trilogy is unlikely to give up before the third volume. Nonetheless, if you've just finished The Confusion and are wondering whether it's worth continuing: it is.

Randall Garrett, "Murder and Magic"

2014-10-26 · in Books · 176 words

A short collection of Lord Peter Wimsey-esque murder mysteries — four stories, written and set between 1964 and 1973, with two gimmicks: Richard the Lionheart didn't die in 1199, and a small (but significant) fraction of the population are able to use magic. The former means that we're sitting in the middle of an Anglo-French feudal culture, and the latter means that technology has developed in a rather different direction.

This doesn't mean that we get a bunch of mystery stories revolving around the use of magic, though; instead, magical forensics is a well-developed science, and magic-based engineering is available for those who can afford it. My favourite example was the investigator's electric torch — which is normal in every regard except that the filament is prevented from burning up by an enchantment rather than a vacuum…

The only complaint that I've got are that these aren't fair mysteries (that is, there are clues that the investigator and his assistants know but the reader doesn't). I'd like to see the same idea done at novel length.

Robin Hobb, "Blood Of Dragons"

2014-10-24 · in Books, Realm of the Elderlings · 77 words

This is either the thirteenth Realm of the Elderlings book, or the fourth Dragon book, depending on how you look at it; it's the conclusion of the story about the resurrection of dragons that began back in the first Fitz trilogy. The writing and characterisation hers is up to Hobb's usual standard; good stuff.

I wonder which universe we'll get a book from next — it'd be nice to hear more about the Soldier Son world…

Robert L. Forward, "Indistinguishable From Magic"

2014-10-21 · in Books · 91 words

A pop-science book, explaining how science-fictional concepts — for example, gravity control, or faster-than-light travel — could be achieved using existing science. In many cases the science needs to be helped along with heroic feats of engineering and/or politics — for example, when he's talking about space elevators and space fountains.

Most chapters are illustrated using one of Forward's SF short stories, or with an excerpt from one of his books. The ideas are interesting and they're explained effectively; I think his writing style works much better for non-fiction than for fiction.

John Culshaw, "Ring Resounding"

2014-10-05 · in Books · 307 words

To get an effectively frightening sound for Fafner, Gordon had rigged up a huge bank of about twenty fifteen-inch speakers each with its own power amplifier, and installed the lot in the Blaue Saal, which is a very resonant hall attached to the Sofiensaal. […]

Böhme did not greatly like the result. I sound awful, he said.

You're meant to, I told him. You're a dragon.

He thought about that for a moment. Yes, he said I know. But I'd like to be a beautiful dragon.

Decca Records producer John Culshaw tells the story of the first complete stereo recording of Wagner's Ring cycle, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti — a project that Culshaw and his musicians completed in 1965 after nearly ten years' work. Culshaw notes early on that had he been producing 78 RPM records rather than LPs, the project would have occupied 224 sides; and later he describes a radio station that spent an entire broadcasting day playing the completed recordings.

There are plenty of amusing anecdotes here about the problems of employing and recording opera singers and instrumental soloists. However, I found the most interesting material to be about Culshaw's philosophical and practical approaches to producing the Ring as a studio rather than live recording, taking advantage of the then-new stereo LP format to do things that weren't practical in a theatre performance, while not straying too far from conventional performance techniques. It's a bit light on technical detail for my taste — but when this was written in 1968, I imagine Culshaw was keen not to give too many of his secrets away!

Thoroughly recommended. While I have some of the other LPs Culshaw talks about in this book, I don't actually have any of the Decca Ring series; time to visit my local second-hand record store, I think…

Neal Stephenson, "The Confusion" (reread)

2014-10-03 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 124 words

The sun rose. What a moment ago had been glowing pools of spilled fire on the black velvet ground, were revealed as damp patches on khaki dirt. The bubbler ripped loose, hurtled away, and impacted on the roof of a monastery half a mile downrange. The chimney and dunce-cap shot into the air, spiraling and pinwheeling through the night sky as if the Big Dipper had scooped up a load of the sun's own fire.

See my previous review; and we're now moving into Newton and the Counterfeiter territory.

Rather more action-oriented than Quicksilver, although with occasional interesting alchemical interludes; I'd remembered the bit about steel but forgotten the striking description of phosphorus production. The epistolary approach to Eliza's sections works effectively.