My fortnightly summary of what I’ve been reading and listening to.
Boy, a fortnight comes around quickly! Never mind, let’s see what’s been going on.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.
E-book on my iPod.
See here for my take on what it was like to read such a long book on the iPod Touch.
Setting aside how I read this book, I should say that I found this long historical novel very entertaining and enjoyable. Certainly a departure for an author formerly known as being the writer of best-selling thrillers.
It follows a small cast of characters who become involved in the building of a new cathedral in England during the 12th Century. The historical backdrop is the civil war between the supporters of the rival contenders for the throne, Stephen and Maud. Those who are familiar with the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters will be familiar with the bones of this part of English history.
Follett succeeds in bringing out how uncertain and dangerous life was during this time. We follow the fortunes, among others, of a mason and his family; the daughter of an ousted earl; the prior of a monastery; and the sullen, violent son of a nobleman. There are terrible, violent crimes; two or more love stories; betrayals and reversals of fortune. Yet they all knit easily together in the story, which is gripping.
Follett makes no attempt to suggest the use of the language which would have been in use at the time; everyone speaks and thinks in essentially modern English. That’s all fine, and to be expected (think of it as a translation no less than would be a translation from French to English). But there are times when the reader wonders if the thinking patterns of the characters would be quite so recognizably modern as the author makes them out to be.
There’s also the occasional outright anachronism. For example, I doubt whether anyone at the time would have described the shape of a castle’s fortifications as being like ‘a figure eight’ – Arabic numerals (0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) weren’t adopted in the West until well after this date. But this is mere pettifogging pendantry on my part.
Well worth reading. I plan on tackling the equally long sequel, World Without End, set two centuries later, sometime soon.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow.
E-book on my iPod.
This is a free e-book, made available by the author under a Creative Commons license. (Though, interestingly, you can still buy it from Fictionwise for $13.95 if you want to support the author).
It’s quite a short novel – Doctorow’s first – but fizzing with ideas, and an enjoyable read.
I read it specifically to find out about the respect-based economy he postulates, because I’m intending to research and write about such systems here in the future. I was a little disappointed in this goal, since the book really doesn’t explore much about how such a system would work in practice, or how it would evolve – it’s merely a fait accompli when the book opens.
I enjoyed much more the concept of the end of death by means of the ability to save a complete “back-up” of one’s mind at any time, and then have this backup restored into a new, cloned body, at a later time if your current body dies. It throws a whole new importance on the dictum “back up often“, since, obviously, you lose that whole part of your memories experienced since the last back-up. Fascinating idea, and used very well as part of the plot. But it’s perhaps a pity that Doctorow didn’t explore some of the same territory as Algis Budrys in Rogue Moon about whether identity would truly be preserved by such a process.
But these are quibbles. The story was engaging, the locale amusing (the historically preserved Disneyland in Florida), and the characters, though a little shallow, worth following. As a first novel, it is really very impressive, and I’ll go looking for Doctorow’s other works.
Full points to Doctorow, by the way, for campaigning against the corporate lock-up of copyright as a legal tool, and for putting his money where his mouth is and making many of his works available under Creative Commons licenses.
I’m currently part way through:
- The Great War – Walk in Hell by Harry Turtledove (audiobook)
- Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks (hardback, from library)
- A Sleeping Life by Ruth Rendell (e-book)