13th of December: Look, I know

yes, it’s been a while. Tell me something I don’t know. I’ve been busy, alright? So we’re going to proceed as follows – I’m going to post reviews this week just to tide you over, and then, weekend before Christmas, I’ll put out a bumper reading list for you to take onto the trains and buses and planes home, and to read on the sofa, etc. etc., because I’m well thoughtful (and also I’m off work from the 18th)

State of the Art – Iain M. Banks

This, Iain M. Banks’ only short story collection, was a bit of a miss for me. Even in my recent string of underwhelming Banks books, they’ve been generally enjoyable until the end.

I don’t like to leave books unfinished, but I didn’t bother getting to the end of the centrepiece novella of this one, and I wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of the short stories it contained. Most leaned a bit too heavily on a gotcha twist ending, and many of them had a very transparent political subtext. The novella was given over to characters exchanging thudding monologues about progress and religion and the Holocaust and I eventually chucked it on the floor. Strong pass on this one, imo.

The Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

Gave up on this one when I was a lad, and having finally gotten back to it, can’t really figure out why. I think it was something to do with the general bleakness of the middle sections, but I think it was mostly that I was a fool.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea sketches what seems like a fully-realised fantasy world with laws of magic and different kingdoms and customs and languages, while telling a pretty compelling coming-of-age wizard-y tale. It’s enjoyable, but it’s probably telling that I had to go up to the children’s section of the library to find it. It tends to blast along quite quickly, which is admittedly preferable to the last fantasy novel I read, Dance of Dragons, which really… doesn’t. But yeah, it’s as good as everyone says it is I guess.

Inversions – Iain M. Banks

Actually enjoyed this one, which is a relief, as I think it’s the last Iain M. Banks I hadn’t read. Interestingly, it’s not exactly a Culture novel so much as a sort of medieval fantasy*, so it moves along quite quickly without so much dawdling on the details of different future technology and AI societies. The writing doesn’t have as much of Banks’ wit as usual, possibly because the two narrators tend, a doctor’s assistant and a ruler’s bodyguard, are by design, less interesting than the characters they follow.

It’s decent.

*although this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems

The Innocent – Iain McEwan

Good, this. Somewhere in between a Cold War spy story and a romance novel, it follows its slightly bumbling English protagonist in very close detail, which I really like. It makes the unfolding of the plot more plausible and more exciting, as you can see the internal logic and impact of events (god this is reading like a school book report). This detailed narration extends to the romance side of things, which is by turns very explicit and beautifully elliptical. The two ‘genres’ clash and intertwine and it all unfolds a bit grimly, but the final chapters are rather beautiful things.

The Tank War – Mark Urban

Couple of weeks ago, I went to take books back to the library, intending to not get anymore and catch up on the Pocket queue. But when I saw this on the shelf, I did a little squeal, immediately ran to the checkout and withdrew it and sent a picture of the cover to my girlfriend. The Tank War!*

I’m not 100% where the tank-specific obsession started – think I got Niall Barr’s Pendulum of War, about El Alamein from a charity shop a while back and that book was just chat about tanks and tank armour and tank strategy for pages and pages and it became one of those ironic things that I loved tanks that actually became self-fulfilling.

Anyway, I mention Barr’s book because it’s a lot better, really, than Urban’s. The Tank War is structured around one regiment, which it follows from Dunkirk to Hamburg, 1940-1945, and it’s quite a clever idea. In some ways, however, it falls flat – for one thing, officers are promoted out and transferred in and out of the regiment, meaning you don’t really get quite the consistency of characters you’d need. Urban also cheats a bit – sometimes the 5th Tank Regiment wasn’t the most interesting one in a battle so he’ll talk about the 6th for a bit.

It’s a lot more popular history than some, so there’s limited discussion of strategy and that, which may be appealing to non-weirdos, I guess, but it felt quite shallow, and a lot of the tactical improvements that Barr identifies as crucial to the success in North Africa go unmentioned.

Still, the tight focus does give a sense of how the men involved handled war, and you do develop some attachment to specific individuals which can be quite affecting.

S’alright. Some decent photos of tanks and that.

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