EXCESSION By Ian M. Banks

Not perfect, but pretty damn Amazeballs

This is an epic science fiction/space-opera novel by a very impressive author. It is also a #5 in the series, so, no matter how much you are intrigued by this review (here is hoping), do not go out an acquire it without reading some of the early ones as your confusion will be palpable.

A mysterious artifact appears mysteriously in a remote corner of space, beside a mysterious, trillion-year-old sun from a different universe. It has the ship Minds, the Culture and several of it’s allies in a tizzy and is the catalyst for a number of conspiracies, political maneuverings and deals. It is also a chance for the author to give the reader a lot more about the Culture from a new perspective.

Several small things I really enjoyed about this book. I LOVED the way the inhabitants of Banks’ world call ‘space’ volume; as in “..all the ships in the adjacent volume..” it is with small details like this that an author effortlessly (for the reader at least) sets the scene of a different time and place. The Excession has lot of little touches like this one.

The complexity of the intertwining plots is fascinating and I liked the way that the ship Minds make up the majority of the characters, the intrigues and the substance of the plot. In the universe of The Culture, Minds are smarter-than-human AIs, individuals in their own legal right many of them are in ships of different kinds, some in stations. While there are a few human actors -and one exceptionally alien species- as main characters, the majority of our social interaction is from Minds, or their Avatars and I really enjoyed the complexity of these relations. This book takes all the previous notions, from earlier novels of AIs as ships and takes it to whole new levels of detail and fascination.

The detail! The detail of Banks’ world is exquisite if not intimidating. It is hard for me to decide if this is sci-fi or space opera; I lean toward sci-fi myself, but possibly there is not enough hard tech/science in it for some people. Still, the detail of the different aspects of minds in the Culture, the details of the different kinds of lifestyle in the Culture and the general scene of a whole world operating just out of sight. The is very, very impressive. 

Where the detail becomes overwhelming: Unfortunately, quite early and then all the way through. This is a long book and it took me a long time to read it, by my standards. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but at the end of the day, I rather suspect that I missed a lot of it. One of the main problems I had was actually with the best, the most impressive of the aspects of this book: One that I have total respect for. Using the Minds (mostly of ships) as the main characters was perfect for the story. The way the ships were named, the way they communicated their ‘inner lives’ as distict from their crew who we barely encounter… It was all formidably well done and well thought out. But I, regrettably, could not keep them straight in my head most of the time. Like you say at the end of a bad date “it is not you, it is me!”

The ships, these formidable, intelligent, individual agents have names that suit them, chosen by themselves, and occasionally they change them. Also they communicate via…. some kind of signal? a bit like an email trail…? And directly with each other. So you have these long discussions between Fate Amenable To Change, Ethics Gradient, Grey Area and similar. It is great stuff, even if, like myself you can’t keep them straight in your head. But it detracted from the story for me in a big way.

You see, with a random name like that, no scene or context to help determine who is who and no visuals I really didn’t know what faction was doing what. To be honest (and this is embarrassing) It was only in the last hundred pages that by reading a ships name I knew who the ship was. There are 452 pages if you include the Epilogue, so I was kind of late for that party.

The other down side to this level of character confusion (in addition to suspecting my own intelligence is lacking for most of the book), is that it makes it hard to pick up and put down this novel. My lifestyle does not include the ability to put my life on hold for the entire reading experience. I have to put books down to go to work, stuff, things. When you are continually reading it is easier to keep the context and the characters distinct in your head. Picking up this book for half an hours quiet reading time in my lunch break, it would take me a good five-ten minutes to figure out where I was and who was who.

That is a lot of complaint isn’t it? The amazing thing is that I still really enjoyed this book. I doubt I remember all of it, not sure that I ever understood whole swaths of it; exactly how many different Mind/Ship factions were there? At least two surely? Maybe three….?
And yet, despite that I enjoyed it, might read it again, will definitely read more of the Culture books and am very impressed by it in general. Am I a literary masochist? Quite possibly.

As a final note; how good is Banks at oceans, seas and all things marine? The man has an absolute genius for describing anything sea related. In this book we have a woman living in a tower by a simulated ocean in which marine animals live their lives (yes, that is just how big these ships are, and just how complex their minds, that they can create and maintain this). To be honest I have walked on beaches beside real seas that were less convincing than the one he writes here. 
Magnificent!

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THE SCOTTS HERBAL: The Plant Lore of Scotland By Tess Darwin

Anyone who knows me or reads my reviews, will know I am truly an Omnivorous reader. I read pretty much any book that a twenty first century person can hunt or gather. I like science books and did some botany at Uni (though admittedly under duress), I have come to be glad I did. More recently, I was into historic reenactment and so this book charmed me on all levels. All too often, one has to read heaps of books, articles and folk-law to tease out the information that Tess so generously gives here in one very readable volume.

The introduction talks briefly about wild foods in the modern context, and describes the fact that while there is a lot of information available on Scots plants it is often scattered and inaccessible. The first forty or so pages are a concise, useful outline of the uses of plants as food, medicine, magic/myth, textiles and as an economic tool.

The remainder of the book is arranged in taxonomic families of plants (which makes it very easy to use) but including the common, Gaelic, Scots and local names. The amount of information for the different entries obviously varies considerably but includes the ways in which the plant was used and where it was found. This book covers (though briefly) stone age to twentieth century and so has the potential of being very useful to anyone who is trying to glean the fragments of information available from the dark ages.

The introduction has an interesting list of foods that were available to, and have been suggested by archaeologists as having been in use by Stone Age Scots. It includes various roots and herbs and describes the flavours they would have produced in terms of ‘peppery, ginger flavour’ ect. I found it interesting that included is lime which I would not have expected on the British Islands that early.

There is a short segment on the 1991 discovery of the man in the ice, a segment on basket making and other uses of wood ect. And descriptions of excavations of a twelfth century site near Perth which may have been a dyers workshop. The plants found there were are mosses, heather and other plants that seem local rather than indigo and madder.

GRAVE SURPRISE (Harper Connelly #2) By Charlaine Harris

Grave Surprise is the second in a series and I always think it is a bit hard reviewing ‘series’ books. On one hand, I try hard to be objective about the individual book I am reviewing, but, on the other hand you can’t really review a ‘series’ book without talking about the previous ones. Another thing is that if you describe the premise you are doing exposition, which is something we criticize in the books we read, so. Tough call.

Here goes; Harper was hit by lightning when she was 15, revived by her half brother Tolliver, she took years to come to terms with the after effects, but now an adult, she and Tolliver make their living from the strange side effect of Harper’s being hit by lightning: Harper can now find dead people. Their bodies call to her like a strange buzzing in her head and she gets to see the last minutes of their life, not through their eyes, but through their memories.

This is the second book and I read it after the third (this happened by accident), so it was interesting and quite fun for me to go back and read the case that was referred to in the past tense in the next book “An Ice Cold Grave”. Harris’ writing is easy,polished and undemanding so that there was no real issue with reading out of order and the plot of this novel was good. The characters do not really change a whole lot between books, it is a small series of just four of a not-so-long period so they are pretty interchangeable. They are easy and fun to read, I did enjoy this one. But.

A central theme of these books is Harris/Harper expounding on how many people think her powers are a con, that she is a charlatan ect ect ect. It gets pretty irritating after a while. Surely there is SOME person in the entire USA who would actually believe in the abilities of the person they hired. Where are the Fox Mulders in this world Harris has written?

Anyway, in this one Harper is hired by an anthropology professor who is teaching his students about debunking the supernatural. He has a prime setup, an old graveyard with records that have only recently come to light and which Harper can not have seen. So in she goes. I really do like the description of how she identifies people’s cause of death in gravels, it is fascinating, well written and rather charming. Of course, in this graveyard is a much more recent corpse, one of a young girl who was killed much more recently, and thus Harper and Tolliver are plunged into another investigation.

This one can be a bit exposition-y. I do realise the irony of that statement after what I wrote at the start, but these are small books and easy to follow, they do not need as much repetition of the backstory as they get. Even a new reader would be able to follow where this was coming from. Still, I read fast and skim reading is always possible with repetition, so it did not bother me too much.

I liked the large cast of characters, I liked the unfolding of the plot and the development of the characters. The crime was fun, though the ending was unsurprising (I defy anyone to have failed to see it coming), but the course of reading it was very satisfying.

Would recommend to anyone who likes Harris’ writing style and a fun little crime novel with just a dash of supernatural.

AN ICE COLD GRAVE (Harper Connelly #3) By Charlaine Harris

This was a fun read; mind you, I read it accidentally, in a way.

This is a #3, but without going online there was no way to know that, so, thinking it was a #2, I read it directly after the first book.

The guilty pleasure that is a Charlaine Harris books was much in evidence for this one. Harper and her stepbrother Tolliver… Wait, what? why is Tolliver arcing up at being called her brother? What are these things that Harper coyly refuses to mention in the privacy of her own mind… Oh! I missed a book in the series, well, damn. Too late now….

In North Carolina, a place with mountains and a frigid winter apparently, Harper is called in over a cold case of a missing teenage boy. In fact, the town has an arresting number of missing teenaged boys, but the previous chief of police refused to take them seriously.

The current chief of police suspects that Harper is a con artist, bitterly resents her being called in, but has been obliged to accept that relatives insist. Harper finds the boy, buried in the slowly freezing ground of the falling winter,behind a derelict house. Unsurprising to the reader is when she finds many other boys buried near him and the plot of a hidden serial killer slowly unravels.

While this is a fun book, it is slightly grimmer in general demeanor than the first one. The plot and the linked deaths are very well done and much better developed than the first book in the series. The down side is that Harper is miserable about her private life, so there is a grimness to the reading that was not present in the first book.

That said, the increased complexity of the plot, the increased sophistication of the characters and the way in which the background of Harper’s unusual ability are fleshed out, all these things make this a very good book. I will definitely try and keep an eye out for the #2 and #4.

This book, I think, will appeal to readers more on the crime fiction aspect than on the supernatural aspect, which takes a bit of a backseat to the slow build of the serial killer element.

GRAVE SIGHT (Harper Connolly #1) By Charlaine Harris

Ah, Charlaine Harris; the guilty pleasure that you don’t quite want to admit in public, the slightly abusive ‘friends with benefits’ relationship that you keep returning to because the ‘benefits’ are so fun and easy…

Grave Sight is fun, easy and fast to read. The hypothesis is new and intriguing; Harper Connelly got hit by lightning when she was young, her step brother, Tolliver, resuscitated her. Now, along with a lot of residual problems from the event Harper has one particular stand out oddity; she can find dead people, detecting their location and the final minutes of their life, from their own personal point of view. 

This ability takes it out of her, but she uses it to making a living for herself and her step brother as they pedal this exceptional talent around America. Now, normally, Harper and Tolliver go in, detect, get paid and then leave. Some jobs are easier than others, as when a persons grave is known, and the question is about the death. Other jobs are harder, when the location is not known and Harper must, kind of, zoom in, on the location.

In the little Ozarks town of Sarne, getting out fast is no option; a teenage girl’s body is missing and while Harper finds her fast, the circumstances surrounding her death conspire to keep Harper and Tolliver in town. This town has some very nasty secrets that no one is telling, next thing we know, more bodies are piling up and Harper must do more detecting than she might prefer in order to look forward to escaping the town.

This was an immensely fun read. The writing is polished, in an easy sort of undemanding way. The characters are well made and straightforward, the supernatural element that is Harris’ genius, that is new interesting and a lot of fun to read.

This book will not change your life, but it will entertain you, and cuddle you close for some comfort reading of a gently twisted nature.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK By Neil Gaiman

It is very rare for me to put a pre-order on a book, this was one of the handful of them in my lifetime and it did not disappoint.

You would think that all the truly unique fairy stories must already have been told right? Well, here is a fairly newly written, completely no derivative that I can tell fairy story. It charms and makes you hold your breath and effortlessly keeps you entranced while you read it and leaves you with things to think about when you put it down. It is effortlessly read and manages to be both modern and timeless at the same time.

We start with the bad guy – and no one understands the underlying mythic need for a bad guy like Gaiman does- whose name is Jack, he has come to a house at night to kill the whole family and he has almost completed his task. Parents, daughter all lie dead but the baby climbed out of his cot, down the stairs and out into the night which Jack was otherwise occupied. He follows the baby up to the graveyard where he can see him through the railings….

But then, something strange happens, the baby vanishes, picked up by one of the inhabitants of the graveyard Mrs Owens, who with her husband Mr Owens, have been residents since their death. And the baby grows up as Nobody Owens with freedom of the graveyard playing in it and learning it’s secrets.

It is a brilliant story, read it and see. 

NEMESIS By Agatha Christie


This one was a lot of fun; Miss Marple hears that Mr Rafiel has died. Now some of us know Mr Rafiel from a previous Miss Marple book, A Caribbean Mystery, where, on a small island resort in the Caribbean, she foils the murderous plans of a dastardly criminal, with the help of the very wealthy and even more irascible Mr Rafiel…

This is a worthy follow up book, just as convoluted in the plots and characters, motivations and actions, as were the previous stories with this character. Although one of the latter written books featuring Miss Marple, one does not get the sense that Christie is bored with her at all (as did happen with Poirot) rather, she seems to treat Miss Marple with enjoyment and humour and to give her plenty of scope to shire as an individual.

The notion of Miss Marple as ‘Nemesis’ which is the source of the title, was first suggested in A Caribbean Mystery and is an intriguing notion, as few of us would connect the word with an old, maiden aunt, inclined to knit and wear fluffy pink items.

Although I had read this one a long time ago, and had a bit of a glimmering of an idea who actually ‘dunnit’ as it were, the reading experience itself was fun enough throughout. The great reveal at the end was as satisfying as one would expect and I am very glad I ran across this book and picked it up off the sale table.