Review of Sunderland : A Club Transformed by Jonathan Wilson

sunderlandThis isn’t a long book and yet it took me three or four months to finish it (that should kinda tell you everything) and to be honest if I hadn’t been left on a broken down train with nothing else to read on a my kindle I doubt I would have ever bothered.

I picked up the book on the reputation of the author and out of the desire to get some sort of inside view of Roy Keane’s tenure at the Stadium of Light. Keane afterall took Sunderland from the relegation zone to Champions in less then a season. Couple that story with Keane’s notorious personality and there should be the makings of a good book.

I was hoping it would be something along the lines of Daniel Taylor’s “This is the one”. For that book Taylor was clearly covering Manchester United in real time and giving the presses view of the action. It was well written, exciting and had interesting football related insights. In short it was everything one might want in a football related book.

In “Sunderland : A Club Transformed” there is none of that. There are lots of dull match reports you could get online and little insight beyond that of the blog of a casual fan (yes I do see the potential for hypocrisy and/or irony). Instead much of the book is taken up with dull teenageresque prognostications about the role of football in a post-industrial society and “fun” facts about the city of Sunderland.

A real disappointment. Avoid unless you want to know that for much of the last 60 years Sunderland was the biggest city in Europe without a cinema. Spoiler alert at the end of the book it is revealed that in 2004 Sunderland finally got a cinema of its own!

Review of Use Of Weapons by Iain M Banks (SPOILER KLAXON)

useofweapons****SPOILER ALERT****

If you have any intention of inclination to read this book now or at anytime in the future DO NOT read my review. There is no way to review this novel without exposing crucial plot details to the cold light of day where upon the novels integrity and your enjoyment of Use of Weapons will disintegrate like a vampire exposed to daylight. You have been warned.



This is the fifth of the Iain M Banks culture novels that I have read. From my internet meanderings I also get the sense that it is the most highly thought of out of the Culture series. I do not share this opinion. For me Use Of Weapons promised much but never quite delivered and is only partially saved by its awesome if grisly twist ending.

Use of Weapons follows the life Cheradenine Zakalwe who is essentially a gun for hire mercenary for the Culture or more specifically Special Circumstances. What separates Use of Weapons from being Iain M Banks version of James Bond however is the unusual narrative structure of the book and the Banks’ seeming aversion to action scenes.

The book follows Zakalwe in two interlinked alternating narratives. Strand ‘A’ is nominally the main plot that moves chronologically forward in time. Special Circumstances search for Zakalwe who has stopped working for them and destroyed the high tech surveillance ‘knife missile’ that was keeping tabs on him. Zakalwe is needed to contact a Diocletian like political figure Beychae who has entered retirement too early for Special Circumstance’s liking.

What I will term Strand ‘B’ reveals Zakalwe’s history and character by moving chronologically backwards in time. Although I haven’t checked I strongly suspect that the order of events in strand B is malleable.

This structure was not the idea of Iain M Banks but of Banks’ friend ken MacLeod. Banks acknowledges this in the dedication and if you listen to this old Guardian interview Banks fleshes the book’s creative process out somewhat.

Written many years before being published Banks initially gave the book an even more elaborate plot structure. This form was based on the idea of structuralism which I am not going to go into mainly because I don’t know much about it and do want to ride that particular wiki-wormhole.

The takeaway for me though is that the novel was one that was initially obsessed with form, shape and being a clever for the sake of being clever (Banks does admit this in the interview). This formal origin explains in part the feeling I had reading this book that it was at times stilted.

The stilted or inert nature of the reading experience however, may also be due to author intent regarding the character of Zakalwe and the dueling timelines. Afterall the crucial bit of this book is the twist ending at the end of the novel.

This twist changes everything about the story and characters. Now Use of Weapons is essentially a character piece about Zakalwe and the ultimately pointless nature of war. To mirror this throughout the book Zakalwe is essentially a static character. He tries to escape war and grow as a person but he is essentially a stunted individual. He is an inert and unchanging character. The problem is that this makes for a very still story and at times nearly dull plot that is a tough read.

Added to this is the fact that this novel suffers at times from what I will term “Wolverine : X-Men Origins” disease.

I hate comparing such a bad film to what is ultimately a good book but I believe it is valid comparison. If you watch this honest trailer you will see that that Wolverines’ years fighting wars are completely glossed over in 30 seconds of not-so-great montage .

In the Use of Weapons Banks essentially does the same thing. He introduces really interesting concepts that are never properly explored because he wants to write a character piece and doesn’t want to give up too much information in case in ruins the twist ending.

For example, when Zakalwe is found by the Culture he is discovered on a planet where he has been attempting social engineering on a planet wide/solar system wide scale. Essentially he has been giving the richest most powerful individuals access to advanced life extending youth giving technology if in return they behave nicely and stop committing wars and genocides. Although it almost works by the time the Culture locates Zakalwe again his meddling has made war incipient.

This is a really interesting idea that is dropped like a stone and never seen again.

Banks does the same again when Zakalwe has the most interesting discussion of the book with the character Beychae. Beychae asks Zakalwe “has it ever occurred to you that in all these things the Culture may not be as disinterested” or good as it claims.

Beychae points out that the Culture “wants other people to be like them”… “the culture believes in machine sentience, so it thinks that everyone ought to, but it also believes that every civilisation should be run by machines”.

Because Zakalwe is essentially a character who is frozen in time by the event that occurs in the last few pages of the book but is chronologically at the start of the novel (I know confusing) though he hasn’t thought about this.  Also because Banks wants to write a character piece the issue is again dropped. There are also numerous cool war and actions scenes that are brushed off that this explosion loving reader would have liked to have seen.

So if you imagine. I am reading this book which is deliberately hard to follow. It  sets up interesting set pieces and issues and then fails to explore them. I was getting frustrated. If sharpening the keys of my laptop wouldn’t have caused unavoidable structural problems then I would have done so in preparation for the kicking I was going to give this book before the eyes of the entire internet.

The twist ending though comes along and it saves the book. I turns a really frustrating experience into a good to very good book. I didn’t see the twist coming and so the impact of it hit me as Banks and MacLeod had intended. The only shame for me was that the book hadn’t been a novella or short story. If it had been it would have been an instant classic.

So Use of Weapons isn’t quite a 4 star book but it is closer to 4 stars than it is to 3 and a half. For me it isn’t the best Culture novel though I enjoyed Player of Games and Surface Detail more.


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Review of Black Sun Rising by Celia Friedman (Book One of the Coldfire Trilogy)

Image‘Black Sun Rising’ is stuffed full with great ideas and fascinating set pieces. Unfortunately though, the book as a whole seems less than the sum of its parts.

The best bit of this book is the central premise/world building which is (and I don’t use this word lightly) awesome.  Humanity set out to colonize the new world of Erna but this world reacted in a way nobody could imagine. It shaped itself to humanity’s fears giving life to the creatures of our darkest nightmares. Essentially the metaphysical is made terrifyingly real.

To survive on Erna humanity was forced to destroy its advanced technology and fight back against world in which life was constantly adapting to kill humans. One human ‘the prophet’ led humanity in the battle to impose mastery on the world but as triumph near he fell into darkness and evil.

It is at his fall into darkness that the cold open begins and right from the off this book had my attention. I’m not going to spoil it but it was a bold beginning. Let’s just say the prophet crosses the moral rubicon in an ‘extreme’ way in the pursuit of immortality. It was the sort of scene that you would typically find in a Joe Abercrombie novel and I’m all in favour of that.

If anything though this opening reveals the weakness of the novel. I wanted the same level of ruthless brutality had be kept up throughout. At times the novel did move towards this but for long stretches it fell into the sort of fantasy travelog writing that is so difficult to do well.

Added to this is the feeling that the character development is a bit rushed. Relationships blossom a bit too quickly so the payoffs don’t match the supposed stakes. In particular Damien’s love for Ciani would have been more believable had he paid a professional cost for the initial relationship and the subsequent adventure.

It’s hinted early on that the elements of the Church do not like him because uses healing magic and they certainly don’t like Ciani who uses any and all magic. If he had been forced to turn his back on the church to save Ciani this would have added extra emotional depth to his story. In particular, it would have added an extra layer of complexity to his relationship with ‘The Hunter’ and an extra facet to Damien’s rather straight laced personality.

Reading those previous paragraphs back  I feel that I have come across as harder on the book than I would have perhaps wanted. I enjoyed this book much more than the tone of this review might suggest. However, I stand by my views because I really loved the central premise and characters of the story. The ingredients were there for something really special but the souffle didn’t quite rise as it should have. I’d give this 3.5 out of 5. I’m eager to see where the next two books of the series go.

Review of The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

ImageI’m a fan of Iain Banks’ works I haven’t read many of them but what I have read I have really enjoyed. In particular I am enjoying working my way through his Culture series which since I am a big sci-fi fans is really in my wheel house. So when I began listen to ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ off audible my expectations were high.

Recently, I’ve enjoyed and would recommend ‘Surface Detail’ and ‘Player of Games’. The concepts in this were interesting and gripped me. I wish I could say the same of “The Hydrogen Sonata” (THS).

THS deals with the ‘subliming’ of the Gzilt race into the universe i.e. the ascension of an entire race into the spirit world. This is initially an interesting idea but quickly runs into the fact that the ether or the land you sublime into is inherently unknowable.

So you have a central concept which cannot be explained but everyone makes clear that subliming changes everything completely. It renders former animosities and rivalries as pointless. This of course makes it difficult/impossible to care about the actions of both antagonists and protagonists. Which in turn makes the story hard to care about or be interested in.

The idea of subliming is interesting enough if it was in the background rather than the main thrust of the story. One of the side issues is the ‘scavenger’ races waiting to pick over the corpse of the Gzilt civilization.

If these has been made the central feature of the story it could have been a really gripping story. Space pirates fighting over each other to loot the super-tech of a galactic super-power. Sign me up!

Instead we got this slow boring story with no real stakes. I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to finish the final fifth of the book so I am going to have to regretfully give this a 1 out of 5.

I’d still recommend Banks as an author. I recommend almost any other of Iain M Banks’ works. Steer clear of the Hydrogen Sonata though.

Review of Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

gunsgermsandsteelI took my time in writing this review up because, I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought about it.

I was aware of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ for a long time before reading it. I hadn’t read it because I was very much aware of the criticism of it that it was “environmental determinism”. Namely that Diamond explained every facet of human development in terms of having an environmental cause.

It’s not that the environment isn’t important to the development of human societies but it is more interesting and worthwhile if the explanations the author offers include other aspects. Even if it is just to explain why these are less important.

Unfortunately, as I was reading the book this criticism seemed to me to be more and more accurate. Not only do I find being told that everything that happened to every human society everywhere was entirely due to structural causes depressing but the repetitive nature of the way Diamond’s argument is presented is dull and for me ultimately unconvincing.

Environmental/structural causes were often very important perhaps even the most important but other causes must have played a role as well. At one point Diamond mentions that religious beliefs played a part in the development of agriculture. I could have done with this idea being explored. Instead it was dropped like a rock.

So whilst I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book when Diamond’s argument was somewhat fresh I quickly became bored. Instead of being enjoyable reading it became more of a chore.

As a positive I did find reading about how early humans would have domesticated certain crops and animals interesting. This tended to come in the first third to quarter of the book however.

Overall, I could not recommend this book to the casual reader who wants to learn about the origins of the development of human society. Reading it is the equivalent of listening to some politician make the same point over and over again. The book does initially raise some interesting issues regarding the development of human civilization and why ‘West’ colonized civilizations in the Americas and elsewhere.

These are questions however that can be found examined more interestingly at other sources i.e. elsewhere online. Especially since Diamond’s arguments are so well known that almost anyone discussing them online is likely to bring him up.

I’d give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Review of Glen Cook ‘The Chronicles Of The Black Company’


****The novel I read on my kindle was the one whose cover is to the left here. This means it was three books in one; ‘The Black Company’, ‘Shadows Linger’, ‘The White Rose’.****

The cover of the novel features a quote by Steven Erikson (who from the one book of his I have read was very influenced by this) saying that these books “singlehandedly changed the face of fantasy”. After reading the books and seeing that they were written in the mid-1980s I am going to tentatively accept that there is some truth in this.

I read a lot of fantasy and these books still felt so fresh.

Cook wrote fantasy that covers the traditional story in different ways. The characters have huge flaws and do stupid/evil things.

You get to spend time with the bad guys. Including the main villain ‘The Lady’ who is in fact much more of a character and protagonist than the ‘good’ guys for almost all the book.

You get to see parts of the story that you generally only see from the good guys perspective. Oh thanks Gandalf/Aragon/Gandalf substitute/Aragon substitute evil has risen again in the heart of its former dominion. How did you let that happen? Were you not paying attention? This book shows you the events that lead up to this and I really enjoyed this fact.

So some actual plot synopsis. The Black Company is a centuries old group of veteran mercenaries who have fallen on hard times. Their employer at the start of the book is about to lose his grip on power and they need a way out. With their backs to the wall they take a commission serving under, one of the ‘Taken’, Soulcatcher who serves ‘The Lady’ a powerful immortal magician.

This is the start of the first book and from this point you get to see “The Lady’s” fight to maintain her empire. Crucially, though much of it is seen from her point of view. So instead of hearing about how powerful the bad guy is you hear about how powerful the good guy is.

The concepts in this novel are also fantastic. The second book features certain unnamed characters supplying sometimes all too fresh corpses to a magically growing castle. For doing this they get paid lots of cash. As a side effect though that castle keeps getting bigger and bigger. I wonder what could be going on there? I’m sure it is nothing sinister.

This then brings me to one of the debates I have about this book. The author hits upon ideas that are so cool that they power the story along and make you want to keep reading.

The castle discussed above is one, the relationship between the main character Croaker and ‘The Lady’ is another, the Plain of Fear is another. Cook perhaps wisely never quite gives us the full story on these. It’s not just that we never get the history of them. I understand that would be boring but we don’t get to read first hand the narrative of these concepts in the story. It is all a bit Forest of Fanghorn and Isenguard.

I understand why Cook did this. He must have felt that the story if told could never live up to the reader’s imagining of it but I would have really liked to see him try. Even if he failed it would have been a glorious failure.

Overall then I really do recommend this book. I am going to read some more of this series.

Review of ‘How to Archer’ by Sterling Archer the world’s most awesome secret agent

I’m a massive fan of the ‘Archer’ TV show and I had some book vouchers to spend on Amazon so I figured I couldn’t go wrong with ‘How to Archer’. If I had spent actual money on this book it is possible I might not feel so kindly towards it but since it was a gift token and I am a fan of “Sterling Archer the greatest secret agent in the world” (you need to imagine the bit in quotations with a cod Russian accent) I have been kind on the book.

Although it is not a classic there was a solid rate of laughs throughout. My only complaint would be that the book seemed to taper off towards the second half. In particular the cocktail section was far too long and seemed to actually be there to beef up the word count just as the narrating ‘Archer’ kept joking.

Instead of the long cocktail section they could have just beefed up the section detailing Archer’s World fact book. This could have been achieved by including references by Archer about times he has had to travel to various different states and countries. They could have tied this in with the tv series by making it so that Archer is describing an episode but from his own warped viewpoint. This POV would of course be completely different to what we know actually happened.

A good book for fans of the show but a missed opportunity. This could have been a classic with a bit more effort.