Monday 27 May 2013

Review: On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures

On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures
On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures by Charles Babbage

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I write steampunk, and if steampunk has a great-grandfather, it's Charles Babbage, so when I saw this book on Project Gutenberg I immediately picked it up.

Babbage invented the Difference Engine, a mechanical computer which was never fully realized. In the course of trying to get it built, he spent a lot of time with manufacturers, and this 1832 book reflects what he learned, with a large helping of his own political and economic philosophy.

It's not particularly well-organized. Not only do the chapters not tell a clear, sequential story about a single subject, but he often goes off on tangents even within a chapter, talking about everything from how annoyed he is that the king's youngest son was made President of the Royal Society to the possibilities for changing over to a decimal currency (which Britain eventually did, a century and a half later) to a suggested reform of the medical system that would give less motivation to overcharge for inferior or ineffective drugs. Along the way he touches on the importance of such topics as branding, statistical analysis, maintenance of machinery and the teaching of technical drawing; the disruptive effect of specific taxes (while he states that taxes themselves are "essential for the security both of liberty and property" - he's no Libertarian); and the trickle-down theory of economics (he believes in it with reservations, but thinks it's not the best possible system). He proposes submarines, speculates on the possible effects of power transmission over long distances, and mentions the importance of light for health. He also speculates what might happen when the coal is gone (though he believes in the capacity of nature to adjust to industrial pollution).

His main theme, though, is the usefulness and importance of division of labour to produce efficiency in manufacturing. He's opposed to unions (or "combinations", as he calls them), not because he doesn't support the rights of workers to fair treatment but because he thinks unions have shown themselves to be a bad method to achieve that end. He proposes what still sounds like an excellent scheme, whereby part of the wages of factory workers come from a share in the profits of the factory. While believing that government ought to interfere as little as possible between workers and employers, he considers it more important that workmen should be paid fairly and not forced to buy from a "company store", and that hours of work for children, and the age at which they start work, should be limited, because in both cases this is protecting the weak from injustice.

Some things are the same 180 years later. Many of his points about what makes manufacturing profitable are still entirely valid. We still don't have a satisfactory patent or copyright law, and authors are still complaining about the division of profits in the publishing industry (though more about what the publishers get than what the booksellers get, which was Babbage's beef). The trustworthiness of reviews is still in question, though in Babbage's day the problem was that publishers owned the review magazines.

Other things may have been true in his time, when improvements were being made so quickly that machines were being replaced with better ones before they had time to wear out and the price of manufactured goods was dropping precipitately (he includes figures), but now that the industrial age has reached more or less its end state they are no longer applicable. They're applicable to the comparable advances in computers, though, and it makes me speculate about an end state there, when the rate of improvement eventually drops through the law of diminishing returns.

There have been social changes since Babbage's time, too, which I think we would all agree are for the better. No longer do 7-year-olds work 10- to 12-hour days in factories and get paid one to three shillings a month for it. (It wasn't a good time to be a child; even if you weren't working in a factory, you probably had lead toys.)

The Project Gutenberg ebook (I read the .mobi version) has some editing and formatting issues. A spellcheck would have caught a number of the editing problems, mainly missing spaces, although there are also commas read as full stops and the like. In formatting, the main problem is the many tables of figures Babbage includes, which are hard to format in an ebook even if you try (and I don't think the Project Gutenberg editor did).

Babbage's style is long-winded, with long sentences that you sometimes have to concentrate to get through, but the effort was worth it to me to gain a fascinating insight into both the early 19th century and the phenomenon of manufacturing as seen by a remarkable mind.

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Wednesday 15 May 2013

Review: The Far Time Incident

The Far Time Incident
The Far Time Incident by Neve Maslakovic

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this as an E-ARC from Netgalley, and it says "Uncorrected Proof", although it includes an afterword in which the author mentions (and praises) her copy editor. So I'm not sure whether I should mention the editing issues or not. There are some, most of which could be picked up with a spellcheck (missing letters in words and the like), though there are also partly revised sentences and some pieces of dialogue that don't get a new paragraph for a new speaker or are missing their opening quotation mark. There's the odd homonym or near-homonym issue ("interned" where the author means "interred", "thrashing" for "trashing" and "diffuse" where I'm fairly sure she means "defuse"), "everyday" where it should be "every day" and "month's" as the plural. Overall, though, given that the author didn't grow up speaking English, the English is excellent, better than that of a lot of native speakers.

The characters can be told apart, which is always good, though there is a certain sameness about their reactions. Most of them are academics, who will stand in what are about to be the ruins of Pompeii discussing some abstract question rather than escaping like sensible people. However, even the token sensible people (the viewpoint character, who's the Dean's efficient assistant, and the chief of the campus police) seem to share this lack of urgency. This doesn't help to build a sense of tension in the story.

There's plenty of scope for tension. There's a mystery, which was handled well and solved with clues which we, the readers, had been given, but to which I didn't spot the solution. There's the impending eruption. There's an infection in the days before antibiotics, which I thought definitely warranted a lot more concern being shown about it a lot earlier and a lot more often. Somehow, though, nobody seems that worried about anything.

Like Connie Willis's academic time travellers, these academic time travellers aren't able to do anything that would upset history or cause a paradox. Some sort of force prevents them. Willis tends to go into a lot more detail than she really needs to, and we're spared that here, but she also conveys powerful emotion and high stakes, and that's what I was missing in this book.

If there had been more emotion and more tension, this would be a four-star book (editing issues notwithstanding), but as it is I'm giving it three. It's well done, but it didn't excite me.

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Saturday 11 May 2013

Review: How (Not) to Kiss a Toad

How (Not) to Kiss a Toad
How (Not) to Kiss a Toad by Elizabeth A. Reeves

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A playful chick-lit take on urban fantasy, like an updated Bewitched.

It needs a good going over by a proofreader to pick up the incompletely revised sentences, homonym errors and typos, including besought for besotted, Davie's for Davies', want too for want to, through for threw, and a misspelling of a character's name, but otherwise the language is competent, breezy and self-aware. Three and a half stars.

The characters are fun, clearly distinct, with their own verbal and behavioural tics and tags. Four stars, perhaps just a touch under because the main character doesn't solve her own problems.

That brings me to plot. I was pleased early on to get a very clear plot statement, in which the protagonist lists the problems she needs to solve and notes the time constraints. The problem, as I mentioned, is that it's not really her who solves any of them, at least not directly. She gets by with a lot of help from her friends (and family, and a random woman who's neither). The character is fun and appealing enough that I can forgive that, but I hope as the series progresses that she becomes more effective. The pressing problems with their deadlines kind of fizzle out, in the event. Three and a half stars for plot.

The setting is nothing special. Urban fantasy usually has a clear sense of place, and the book's Tucson does have that. The fantasy side pretty much consists of "the stories are true". It's a serviceable setting, but not outstandingly original. Three and a half stars again, I'd say.

Overall, I'm bumping it to four stars, because I did enjoy it for the fluff it is. Fun, light, sweet, like a well-made cupcake, really.

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Friday 10 May 2013

Review: The Tower's Alchemist

The Tower's Alchemist
The Tower's Alchemist by Alesha Escobar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Urban fantasy starring a competent female wizard/spy in Occupied France during World War II, with a truly fresh take on magic, vampires and werewolves. How could I resist?

It's a good story, too. There's a well-sustained tension between the professional and the personal, it's exciting without being a mindless action movie, and the big reveal at the end is not only a great setup for the next book but made me look back on the book I'd just read with a different perspective.

It's not without its flaws, though most of them are sentence-level copy edit issues. For some odd reason, the author avoids using "had" in her sentences, which means that the past-tense narration sometimes seems off. For example, "I wasn't sure how to respond because I thought they thrust this on me..." instead of "they had thrust this on me". Most often, it comes out as the narrator using "I've" when she should use "I'd".

There are a few homonym issues, too: peddled/pedaled, peaked/peeked, complimentary/complementary. The author also uses some fancy words that aren't quite the right words for the sentence they're in. They mean something like what she means, but the connotation isn't right.

All of these are something a good proofreader can fix, but there are a lot of them, about a hundred that I noticed (and I wasn't noting all the misplaced commas). For me, at least, this reduces my enjoyment of the book, and takes the language score down to two and a half stars, but I'm sure the author will get them fixed up before long.

I liked the main character, though I found most of the other characters (and there are many) a bit thin and unmemorable. I would have liked them to be described a bit more, even if it was just a couple of "tags" to help me remember them. Appearance, personal tics, anything would have helped. When, near the end, we came back to the characters in Britain that we'd seen near the beginning, I'd forgotten who most of them were. The main character, though, was a genuinely strong, capable woman, brave, loyal and compassionate, and she didn't get herself into trouble by doing stupid, ill-considered things that men had to rescue her from, like 90% of urban fantasy heroines. She did more rescuing than being rescued, in fact. That's worth three and a half stars for characters, even though the minor characters weren't as clearly drawn as I would have liked.

The plot is well-handled. There's a clear sense of purpose, a clear sense of progress, there are subplots which mesh into the main plot, and, as I mentioned, the reveal at the end worked very well to shift my perspective on the whole story. Four and a half stars.

Now, setting. This is urban fantasy, broadly defined ("within living memory" rather than "approximately present-day"), and there are some urban fantasy tropes that are growing a little tired. Vampires and werewolves are two of them. This book gives us "vampires" who have made demonic deals to get magical power by drinking the blood of wizards, and "werewolves" who are corrupted wizards degenerating into beastliness. It's great. The magic system itself, while not as clearly laid out as, say, a Brandon Sanderson magic system, is original and has plenty of scope for fun and interesting devices and spells. There are multiple different kinds and levels of magic user, which I enjoyed, and the narrator (and hence the author) shows ingenuity in the use of her gifts.

I did have a couple of quibbles with the setting. The spies appear to have very poor tradecraft, freely discussing among themselves who did what and where to find them, and revealing their identities after far too little verification. Maybe it's because I recently read Tim Powers' Declare, which is World War II spycraft with magic and extreme paranoia and lots of double agents, but this side of The Tower's Alchemist seemed a little loose to me. None of it was fatal to the plot, but it didn't help my suspension of disbelief.

Overall, though, I'm giving both the setting and the book as a whole four stars, because it has the kind of originality I always hope for in an indie book but rarely find, because it's a well-told story with a likeable character, and because I came out of it wanting to read more.

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Tuesday 7 May 2013

Review: Demons in the Big Easy

Demons in the Big Easy
Demons in the Big Easy by Jamie Marchant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a novella. Personally, I generally wish novellas were longer, not only to prolong the reading experience, but also so that the characters and the setting have time to gain more depth. This novella is no exception. With that said, I did enjoy it.

There are some minor editing issues which I'll be addressing with the author directly, so I won't mention them here. Otherwise, the language is competently used, plain and unadorned. It's jeans and T-shirt language, not tuxedo language, which is fine for the purpose.

I liked the fact that the main character is an elderly woman. That's a nice departure for fantasy, and something I could stand to see more of. Her granddaughter I found irritating, especially the fourth time that her response to a crisis was to sit over someone who was knocked out repeating "Please don't be dead". Three times is the traditional number that you can pull this kind of thing out. After the fourth, it gets old. I also find characters annoying when they are highly anxious but cause trouble for other people by occasionally doing something rash from which they have to be rescued, and such is the granddaughter.

As I mentioned, not a lot of space in a novella for character development, but there was some (not by the annoying granddaughter, though). The main character, in particular, had an important change of perspective in the course of the story. One character functioned purely as a McGuffin or plot motivator, without taking any action or even having any lines, and in general I don't love that, but if it's not overdone I can live with it.

The plot is straightforward enough, as you'd expect in such a short work, with some nice foreshadowing of a twist which still took me by surprise.

The setting, I realize, was probably explored much more thoroughly in the longer book that comes before this one. This is a reverse portal fantasy (someone from another world coming to ours), and most of it was in our world's New Orleans, but what we saw of the other world seemed fairly generic medieval-ish fantasy. I wasn't sure how the naming and language worked; some of the names seemed Celtic, others more Anglo-Saxon, and the main character's name was Greek, but they all apparently spoke modern English which was understood in New Orleans without any locals commenting on their accents. Again, that may be justified in the earlier book. There was a somewhat simplistic moralising moment contrasting the other world's superior understanding of the balance of nature with our world's, a point probably better made by showing than telling, and which was made, I thought, adequately by showing later in the book.

Overall, I'm not quite excited enough by this to give it four stars, but it's a competent story well told.

I received a free copy of the book via the Kindle Book Review site in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday 6 May 2013

Review: Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants
Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was concerned when this volume of the Temeraire series began with three unlikelinesses, but I needn't have worried. It soon improved.

The three unlikely things were:

1. A man wearing a heavy wool coat is swept into the sea and not drowned, but washed up on shore alive. This despite the fact that the reef where he started was far enough out to sea that it apparently couldn't be seen from shore, and despite the fact that:

2. He suffered a head injury, was knocked out, and lost eight years' worth of memory, exactly corresponding to the length of the book series.

3. He was then found by probably the one person in Japan who wouldn't immediately hand him over to the authorities: a man who'd made a vow to help anyone he saw along the road. The vow had something to do with the health of his wife and child, and even though apparently the wife and child died, he's still keeping the vow.

All of those things strained my credulity pretty badly. Fortunately, as I say, the rest of the book was mostly fine, leaving aside the other unlikelinesses that are an integral part of the series. (I'm referring to the existence of dragons, their ability to fly despite their size, the fudged energy requirements for such creatures and the fact that history didn't start to depart substantially from our history until the series began.) The only remaining thing that struck me as unlikely was that two Japanese characters walk past where Laurence, the hero, can overhear them and get significant information, and he can understand them because they're speaking Chinese, which he speaks, rather than Japanese, which he doesn't speak. I couldn't think of any reason for them to speak Chinese other than to enable him to get this information, which is a plot reason, not a realistic reason.

I read this as an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) from Netgalley, and I have to say I was impressed by how clean it was. Other ARCs I've read have been badly in need of copy editing, but this wasn't, and I assume this reflects Naomi Novik's ability as a writer who produces clean drafts. The one definite issue I did spot, which I think I've noticed in the series before, is a single use of "thence" (meaning "from there") to mean "to there". The language has a flavour of the early 19th century, without becoming unreadably ornate, and that's hard to pull off. I'm giving four and a half stars for language (I reserve 5 stars for language that's also beautiful and evocative as well as competent).

I've come to realize that the characters in Temeraire don't change all that much from book to book. They might gather new quirks (Granby's missing hand, Hammond's cocaine addiction), but they're essentially the same people all the time. Part of the point, if not the main point, of the amnesia plot appeared to be to point up how much Laurence had changed since the beginning of the series, but it also underlined how much he'd stayed the same. He's rigidly loyal to his principles, and the things he'd done in the meantime all arose out of those principles which he started with, and still has. His outworking of the principles no longer includes blind loyalty to his government, that's all. This is presumably what makes him the powerful force for change that he is in the fictional world (one of the Russian characters remarks explicitly on how he is always at the centre of significant events).

I like the characters, but I would like to see arcs for them, however slow. I can't really give more than three stars for characters who don't change much except in their outward circumstances.

Plot, now. Plot is an interesting one for this book, because it contains three distinct plots, in three locations (the whole series consists of a world tour, really). The first is, of course, the amnesia-and-rescue plot, and it's almost self-contained, having hardly any impact on the subsequent events. It seems to serve to reestablish the characters and their relationships and history in the reader's mind, as Laurence regains his memory of events. Although it isn't fully resolved until after the second plot has started, it's effectively the Japan plot.

The China plot, though it has its own adventures, is in large part a setup for the third or Russia plot, because it justifies Laurence and Temeraire having a large force of dragons to use to oppose Napoleon's invasion of Russia. This third plot isn't fully resolved by the end of the book, which just stops at a convenient point.

It's an odd structure, but it kept me interested. It was varied, with escapes, rescues, journeys, and the solving of practical and logistical problems mixed in with diplomacy and fighting, and it kept moving (though not without providing some reflective moments). All in all, I think it worked, and I give plot fourish stars (a little less than four, but rounded up).

Setting is a lot of fun in this series. The intelligent dragons, the difference that they make in the 19th-century world, the world tour, all these have a lot of potential which the books mostly live up to. I've mentioned that there are things about it which are highly unlikely, but that's what fantasy is for. Four stars for setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this, despite the less-than-promising beginning, and I'll continue to look forward to new books in the series.

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Friday 3 May 2013

Review: Declare

Declare by Tim Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a long three-star book with a much shorter four-star book trapped inside it.

I was puzzled by the first half, until I read in the afterword that the author was a fan of John le Carre. I haven't read any of le Carre's books, but I understand they're considered slow-moving, with a lot of detail about the minutia of real-world spycraft and military equipment. That is exactly what Declare is, up to about half-way through, though with occasional hints of the supernatural.

Because I was reading a Tim Powers book, the supernatural was exactly what I was expecting, looking for, and hoping for, and it was only that hope that kept me going through the excessively detailed descriptions of absolutely everything.

In Declare, a man can't just get into a helicopter. We have to be told what make of helicopter it was, and what kind of engine it has ("There was no shaking or vibration from the engine, and Hale realized that it was some kind of turbine, not one of the piston engines that had powered the old Sikorskis and Bristols he had flown in after the war"), and that it has wooden rotors, even though none of this is relevant to anything. It's all atmosphere, and the atmosphere is so thick I found it hard to breathe.

There may not be such a thing as doing too much research, but there is certainly such a thing as sharing too much of your research with the reader. Connie Willis is often close to crossing that line. Tim Powers, in Declare, crosses it early on and never really crosses back.

What would have enhanced my enjoyment a lot more than knowing everything about every period reference and bit of military hardware would have been if Powers had taken a fraction of the trouble to get some basics of British English right, like using the term "aeroplane" instead of "airplane" (or "plane", if he needed a neutral version), not continually using the phrase "off of", and not having a very pretentious, very British man who was educated at Eton and Cambridge say "sure".

Apart from calling the Armenian man "Mammalian", which sounds like taking the piss, and muddling up the order in which events were narrated more than I felt was necessary, that's the sum of what I didn't like about the book. However, because it occurred throughout the book, and especially in the first half, it did reduce my enjoyment considerably.

On to what Powers has done well. He has constructed a brilliant and entertaining "secret history" around the documented life of Kim Philby, the real-life British double agent who defected to the Soviet Union. Philby himself is a minor character for the first half of the book, and a secondary character in the second half. The main character is the entirely fictional Andrew Hale, likeable for his loyalty, somewhat hapless, but competent and brave in a pinch.

The secret history even manages to explain why Philby and his colleague and fellow defector Guy Burgess were such unpleasant human beings.

The order of narration, as I said, isn't linear. My favourite Tim Powers book is The Anubis Gates, which involves time travel, so I knew that Powers was a master of weaving together plot threads from different time periods. However, I didn't think he needed to do it quite as much as he did here. It became a Dance of the Seven Veils, hinting at more to be revealed later without quite showing it. I suppose it helped me persevere through the bits I wasn't enjoying, so that may justify it.

I realize that the massive detail that I didn't like may be someone else's favourite thing, but if I had been Powers' editor I would have had him cut a good half of the first part of the book (which wouldn't have been that difficult), jump around less in time, and fix up the most obvious Americanisms.

If I had been the editor of the ebook edition that I read, by the way, I would have spellchecked it. It's obviously scanned from a print book, and although the scanning has worked well for the most part, there are frequently spaces in the middle of words where, presumably, they broke over line boundaries. It's one more irritation in a book that was already annoying me enough.

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