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Reading: April 2011’s Books

It’s time for each of April’s round-up posts, a quick overview and assessment of all the entertainment I consumed during the month. Having finally been on time enough last month to make goals this is the first proper opportunity to see whether I was able to meet them. This month kicked off with film and next is April’s reading.

Follett and Doctorow are gone this month, but Clarke and Baxter are joined by four new authors.

Image sources: Stephen, Arthur, Ben, David, Raymond and Olaf.

The four different authors in March was the widest selection so far, so the six portraits above should hopefully indicate that there was an even greater variety this month. ‘Variety’ might be the wrong word considering four are all from the same genre, but I’ll doubt that bias will ever change significantly. On to the breakdown then:

March 31st: 'Sunstorm', by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

The second of the three books in the “A Time Odyssey” series, about humanity’s attempts to protect themselves as best they can against an impending life-ending solar event that they can’t stop from happening. As I mentioned last month the original  book in the series, Time’s Eye, was one I couldn’t finished in 2010 and only resumed reading it this March, when I enjoyed it and couldn’t work out what it was that turned me from it before.

I had no issues with Sunstorm and I enjoyed it. It almost goes without saying that there are several interesting ideas in it, seeing as it’s coming from the imaginations of Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The actual cause of the sunstorm itself is one such idea which I won’t spoil.

As it takes place on the original Earth Sunstorm is only connected to the previous book through two things, character Bisesa Dutt and the Firstborn, mysterious floating orbs that seem to be involved in the events of both books. They’re essentially the trilogy’s equivalent of the Monoliths in Clarke’s A Space Odyssey series, though I don’t find them as menacing (even though the Monoliths were mostly just as passive). That might change with the final book, Firstborn.

April 4th - 'Mars', by Ben Bova

I always try to use an image that matches the cover of the book I read, but in this case I couldn’t find a large image for my version of Mars, the 1993 cover.

Mars is essentially a means for Bova to make the case for sending humans to Mars. It’s about a mission to the red planet that only just about came together after decades of campaigning, with all involved aware that if things go badly there likely won’t be another such mission for considerably longer. The book includes a quote on the cover from Arthur C. Clarke (‘A splendid book . . . of his many books, Mars must be the most important’), as does one other this month, so all told Clarke’s name is on the front of four of this month’s books.

Mars was a good book and ultimately didn’t end in any way that I would have expected, but reconfirms Bova’s central point: Mars is waiting for us. In checking something while typing this I discovered that Bova has written two more Mars books, and those three themselves are part of the ‘Grand Tour’ series of novels, currently at fourteen entries and covering the whole solar system. I don’t particularly want to commit to another thirteen novels, but I am interested in reading the other two Mars books.

April 11th - 'Firstborn', by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

I had hoped that this book would arrive before I finished Sunstorm so I could read the whole trilogy uninterrupted, but I purchased it a little too late so read Mars in between. Mars (the planet, not the book) actually plays a big part in this final book of the trilogy and is the setting of the book’s big event, humanity’s attempt to defeat an enemy they can barely even comprehend.

It brings together the major characters, locations and events of the previous two books and reaches a satisfactory conclusion, but it does end in a way that suggests there could have been another novel in the series (possibly called Lastborn) had it not been for the death of Clarke. Baxter is certainly capable of writing another novel on his own (I own more of his books than Clarke’s and they both write in a very similar style), but various prints of Firstborn do call it the conclusion and it wouldn’t be a terrible thing for it to end here.

Apr 16th, 'One Day', by David Nicholls

This book is a little different to what I generally read, having always gravitated towards fantasy and science fiction from a very early age, but it was heavily recommended by somebody I follow on Twitter, Daniel Lipscombe, and similar high praise in other places led to me wanting to try it. It follows twenty years in the lives of Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, who spend a night together in 1988 then go their separate ways (but stay in contact). Each year only ever looks at their lives on the anniversary of that day, July 15th, the ‘one day’ of the title, so every chapter finds them in new circumstances.

Emma and Dexter aren’t quite from my generation, being about a decade older, but the time period encompassed in the books means that it does cover lots of events from the past twenty years that I remember, especially once it hits the late nineties. I liked that the story was rooted in a time I experienced myself, and much like the ‘crossover‘ in World Without End I can see the appeal of reading books like this, even if I’ll likely always prefer other genres.

One Day really was excellent. Nicholls writes both main characters wonderfully, each funny and endearing in different ways, and you really get to know them and root for them throughout the decades, especially when you can see them making bad decisions (and the book spans long enough that you can really see the results of those mistakes). It’s one that’s a lot easier for me to recommend to people than my usual fare (for which you generally have to be a fan), and I do intend to do that because it’s a brilliant book.

Apr 20th - 'Flight of the Nighthawks', by Raymond E. Feist

Reading this was a strange experience. It’s one I’ve had for a few years and has sat in my bookshelf ‘unread’, but as each initial chapter unfolded it began to feel more and more familiar. Places and events kept jogging my memory but only after I’d read them, a deja vu that persisted far into the book. Ultimately I realised I had read it before but could only remember the barest of elements (I knew something was going to happen in a sewer, for example, but couldn’t recall what).

That so little had stuck in my mind should probably have been a sign that it wasn’t a memorable experience, as that’s what it turned out to be for me. It was okay but nothing really grabbed me. Though it’s the first book in the ‘Darkwar Saga’ it’s evidently part of a much larger continuity, and by this point in the chronology all the main characters (and plenty of side ones) are incredibly powerful and knowledgeable, each of them referencing earlier events and things that are otherwise unconnected to the book’s plot, while the villain of the book is mostly in hiding after previous events and therefore didn’t seem as threatening for me as he might have done had I truly experienced what he was capable of.

Another big issue was that this book had lots of spelling and grammatical errors, usually at least one every chapter or so, things like ‘sitting done’ instead of ‘sitting down’ or sentences that just didn’t parse properly. It was off-putting and not something I’ve often seen to that extent, though it probably would have been less of an issue if I had been truly enjoying the book.

April 26th - 'Star Maker', by Olaf Stapledon.

The other book this month with a recommendation from Arthur C. Clarke on the cover (‘Probably the most powerful work of imagination every written’.). Technically I finished it on the first of May so my full verdict should come next month, but as I read almost all of it in April I’m just going to use this space for my verdict and link back to it next month.

The sheer scale of this book is incredible, ultimately covering the universe from beginning to end and not even stopping there, in either direction. Stapledon covers ideas in a couple of paragraphs that other authors would spend a whole novel on, but without it feeling shallow or rushed. Indeed, the book has a density that was almost a problem for the way I read, as on my work days I generally read during breaks. At times it was hard to take it all in while in a room filled with people talking in multiple languages (as well as responding to people who talk to me), a TV on just behind me and one eye on the time.

That minor issue aside though it really is an excellent book, and the fact that I randomly discovered it through a Twitter conversation between two people I follow (Ben Parfitt recommending it to the person I mentioned above, Daniel Lipscombe) maybe makes me appreciate it even more, as before that I was unaware of the author or the book and had I not been monitoring my Twitter feed at that point I may never have done. Some of Stapledon’s ideas really will stick with me for a long time. The version of the book I have was re-published through the SF Masterworks series, a collection of some of the greatest science-fiction books ever written, and I’m definitely going to use that as a source of future novels.

*****

April Verdict

Quality – I’d say three of this month’s books were good – Sunstorm, Mars and Firstborn – while Flight of the Nighthawks was merely okay. One Day and Star Maker, however, were both fantastic and would be theoretical contenders for a list of my favourite books.

Quantity – With no epics this month I was able to get through six books. Thanks to things being slower than normal at work (meaning some longer breaks) I also spent more time reading than any other month this year, though probably only a couple of hours extra across the month.

NewnessFlight of the Nighthawks was the only book I’d read before, though I hadn’t realised that when I started it.

Goals – These were my goals for April:

  1. “keep to what I’m doing, reading daily and for at least about an hour per day” – Achieved
  2. I’d like to manage another month just reading new books” – Sort of Achieved
  3. “Something I definitely want to do is pick up Firstborn” – Achieved
  4. “Ideally I’d like [Firstborn] to arrive in time for me to go straight into that after finishing Sunstorm.”Failed

After my abject failure to meet my film goals for the month it’s good to see I did better with the books. The only real failure, goal four, was something I’d failed essentially before I even set it, having already ordered Firstborn before making the post and unable to do anything to accelerate its arrival, and it was only a minor goal anyway. My second goal was one I sort of achieved because I went into Flight of the Nighthawks fully believing it was new, even though that turned out not to be the case. Mentally I never set out to re-read a book, and overall I consider this month’s goals a success.

For May goals one and two are both good ones that will likely be mainstays each month, though later in the year new entries in a series may prompt me to re-read previous books and knock goal two aside for a month. The list of what I purchased in April that I posted a couple of days ago shows that I have one unread book from there, Black Man, so I would like to read that in May. With Star Maker finished I’m down to just one purchased book so I could do with building up a buffer of a couple, though I have plenty of unread books that I could read instead. In fact I’d quite like to read at least one book I own but have never read before, a token effort towards working through the backlog. I think that will do for May’s goals.

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