Thursday, 23 February 2012

Comfort Reads - Like comfort food, but in book form!

During my recent spell lying on the couch, dying, I found myself unable to get through any of 
my current book, Europes Tradegy by Peter Wilson. Although it is an excellent book, it's simply to dry for when you're feeling rough.  An easier source of relaxation was reading some old favourites.

Lancaster and York: War of the Roses by Alison Weir

I first read this years ago while at university and is a history of the first half of War of the Roses (Richard II, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV etc.)  It sits nowadays between what most would term proper history and popular history i.e. Weir writes in an orderly, chronological style and avoids too complex a vocabulary like modern popular history, but she isn't afraid to dredge up written sources and correspondence and take enough time to make her points. Above all, she does an excellent job of describing the main historical figures without falling back on cliché or accpeted judgements (for instance, by rarely mentioning Shakespeare.)

The book isn't without flaws.  As it's an Alison Weir book, you know you'll be reading about women.  A lot.  However, some key figures are wildly unrepresented in the narrative. Take Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's wife for instance, who gets a lot of praise for her resilience in fighting for her husbands and sons rights (Henry VI is nuts at this point,) but without her son, the heir to the throne, she would be politically nothing.  Yet of the young prince, the reader is told next to nothing.

However, this bias detracts little from the book as a whole; an outstanding and entertaining history.

Against A Dark Background by Iain M Banks

One of my favourite sci-fi reads.  Set in an Earth-like, Near Future solar system, AaDB follows a fairly standard sci-fi premise of a group of retired, elite soldiers being hunted by one, or more, nefarious organisations.  So far, so typical.  What sets AaDB apart is the wonderful character of Sharrow, the leader of the unit.  In middle age, she is preoccupied with thoughts of her legacy (or lack of one,) her sterility and the people she's lost.

AaDB is filled with everything you'd expect from a Banks novel; that dual storytelling style where the reader learns about the past and the present at the same time, the bizarre (the description of the Lazy Gun is pure Asimov) and there's that wonderful bleakness and emptiness as the novel draws to a close (existing Banks readers will know what I mean.)

It's not a great book, the pacing of the story is a little off and the ending can be seen from miles off (in fact, it's standing on a big hill, holding a huge sign saying "THIS IS THE ENDING!!!") but you're so wrapped up in the characters, you really won't care.

Legion by Dan Abnett & Fulgrim by Graham McNeill

Two books from Games Workshop's Black Library that epitomise all the positives and negatives writing for a proprietary IP bring.

Legion, for instance, is generally thought of as one of the poorer Horus Heresy books, but is something of an unpolished gem.  Legion is a fairly typical Abnett book in that it's strengths lie in his characterisation (all those internal monologues,) the choice of perspective he uses (in book about secretive space marines, almost all of the narrative is about humans) and the pace of the storytelling (drip feeding just enough information.)  However, Abnett can't do an action sequence to save his life (the approach of the Nurthene horde is just gibberish.)  Nor can he resist throwing in a "big reveal" into these books, whether they make sense or not.  

Furlgrim is almost the exact opposite of Legion, in that it has an excellent and well paced story.  The reader is taken from fire fights in alien cities to negotiations on pristine worlds, via chaotic space ship and mass land battles.  Unfortunately, McNeill can't do character development or dialogue to save his life.  The theme of the book is the fall to decadence and hedonism of a space marine legion, but it is handled in such a club fisted way as to be almost laughable!

Despite all of these criticisms, I still enjoy reading these and the other Horus Heresy books. For someone who grew up with the 40K universe, they contain a great blend of the familiar and the unexpected. Just don't expect fantastic writing all the time.

So that was my comfort reading, everything nice and familiar and not too taxing.  Do you have books you go back to again and again?  If so, please let me know!


  1. I've read some of Abnett and heartily agree with your appraisal, I like some of this Horus Heresy series.....

  2. Dark Background is ok, but Player of Games is better!