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Phoenixine Eighty-Three, August 1996

I began the month with a particularly boring book which I only bought because it was on special, but I really shouldn't have bothered. Microsoft Secrets purports to take the lid off Microsoft's corporate strategy and to reveal the methods that have made it such a successful company. Well, I suppose that it does just that and to that I end I guess the book fulfils its stated purpose. But it is written in such turgid, mind-numbingly boring prose that few people will ever manage to struggle through it. There are valuable lessons to be learned here and the book really and truly does contain many nuggets of gold. It certainly places Microsoft in its historical perspective and analyses quite keenly the tactical advantages that the company has gained for itself in its pursuit of its long term strategic goals. The way the thing works is eye opening (and the descriptions of just how the products are developed had its fascinations, given that I am a programmer and I have a natural interest in how these things work). How such a deeply interesting topic can be rendered so stultifyingly dull is quite a conundrum. But the authors succeed despite themselves. The book is a perfect object lesson in how not to write.

In urgent need of something to prevent my eyes glazing over I turned to Wild Side by Stephen Gould, an author you may well not have heard of. Every so often, I deliberately buy a book by an author I have never read before, just to keep the interest up. Mostly there are very good reasons why I have never heard of the author, but just occasionally I strike it lucky. About three years ago I read Jumper and was immediately hooked. Not that it did me any good, Gould immediately fell silent and produced nothing else. Imagine my delight when a new novel appeared. Even though it was a quite expensive hardback, I bought it immediately and I was not disappointed. Charlie has inherited a farm from his uncle. Just behind a heavy wooden door hidden at the back of an old barn, he discovers a tunnel into an alternate Earth where mankind seems never to have evolved. The world is a primitive paradise. Animals and birds long since extinct on our own world are here in abundant numbers in the unspoiled wilderness. This is the wild side and it is Charlie's to explore. But to explore a whole world you need equipment and money to buy the equipment. The secret is too big to keep and it isn't long before it leaks out. Then the fireworks really start as an unscrupulous government tries to take advantage of the situation.

The story is a good old fashioned sense of wonder, edge of the seat, nail bitingly taut thriller and I couldn't put it down. Indeed, having finished it and therefore being forced to put it down, I immediately went and pulled Jumper down from the shelf and re-read it. It concerns a young boy who is able to teleport. The implications of the idea are examined in fascinating detail as the hero uses his talent to escape from various nasty situations. How he uses it to make a success of his life is the theme of the first part of the book. The use(and abuse) of his talent becomes more and more blatent. The secret is too big to keep and it isn't long before it leaks out. Then the fireworks really start as an unscrupulous government tries to take advantage of the situation.

You may recognise the last two sentences. The last two paragraphs both finish with them. I am beginning to wonder if Gould is a one theme writer.

Despite this cynicism, I still heartily recommend the books. They are thematically linked, there is no doubt about that, but they both of them tell a rollicking good yarn, and I can forgive a lot of sins for that.

And then I arrived home from work one day and sitting on my doorstep was a parcel of books from England and my cup ran over. The parcel contained the new Terry Pratchett novels -- Feet of Clay (a Discworld novel) and Johnny and the Bomb (the sequel, sort of, to Johnny and the Dead). Not only that, there was Dave Langford's quizbook as well (subtitled The Unseen University Challenge). I became incommunicado and sat down and wallowed in Pratchettiana.

Feet of Clay is another story of the city guard. All our old favourite characters are here (together with a few new ones). They are investigating a series of killings that seem to have been carried out by a golem. The curator of the Dwarf Bread Museum has been done to death with some battle bread. The museum has exhibits of close combat crumpets and deadly throwing toast, and the curator has written the definitive work on offensive baking. Not surprisingly, Carrot finds it fascinating. Then he finds the body, and the game is afoot. The rest is vintage Pratchett. Trust me -- you'll love it (particularly the werewolf who suffers from pre-lunar tension).

Johnny and the Bomb is also a book with all the old familiar characters in it. This time Johnny travels though time back to the second world war in an attempt to prevent (or at least minimise) some of the destruction caused by a bomb that was dropped on the village. In many ways it is a traditional time travel book, full of gleeful paradoxes. There is also a subtext (as there usually is with the Johnny books) and therefore much moralising about the rights and the wrongs of things. Just what is a moral action anyway? Who has the right to interfere in other people's lives?

The Johnny books are the best pure writing that Pratchett has produced. Johnny and the Dead bids fair to being the best book he will ever write. In this company Johnny and the Bomb has to come second. But a very close second; there isn't much in it. This is a great book.

The quizbook is equally fascinating and is one of the few quizbooks where the answers are sometimes even funnier than the questions. You won't be able to answer very many of them, but you will have enormous fun trying.

In the same parcel was the new Tom Holt novel My Hero. Holt is a patchy writer and is somewhat too prolific for his own good. When he is firing on all cylinders he writes truly hilarious books. But sometimes he is too hasty and the jokes don't work. Unfortunately nobody can be just a little bit funny. Either it makes you laugh or it doesn't. My Hero is one of his weakest books. It strains for effect and it never quite makes it. Jane, the heroine, is a writer and the book concerns the secret lives of her characters when they are not being written about. Eventually Jane's life and the characters lives come to intersect more and more closely (they talk to each other on the phone). Another author appears on the scene. He has become trapped in his fantasy world and he needs Jane to write him back to reality. This is real bottom of the barrel stuff and it didn't work for me at all.

You may remember that a couple of months ago I read a novel called Time Scout by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans. I praised it highly as a good old fashioned adventure story. Now comes the sequel Wagers of Sin. It is set in the same Time Travel station as the first and it involves many of the same characters. In a lot of ways it is not so much a sequel as a continuation of the same story and if you haven't read the first, you probably shouldn't bother with this one (you won't understand a lot of the allusions). but if you read and enjoyed the first you will lap this one up. Like the first it is a rollicking good yarn and the scenes set in ancient Rome (and Denver during the heyday of the wild west) are, as always, particularly well written. I hadn't realised this was going to turn into a series, but for once I don't mind. It's a lot of fun.

I used to like David Eddings. I loved the five books of The Belgariad, and I still think they are among the best fantasy that I have ever read. I was less than impressed with his other series, but on the strength of my memories of The Belgariad I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and read Belgarath the Sorcerer, a prequel to the series and a book that promised to shed much light on one of the most fascinating characters from the original series.

I shouldn't have bothered. The book concerns the plottings of Gods and the machinations of their servants (of whom Belgarath is one). When you write on this scale and deal with the manipulations of whole races of people and the attempted destruction of the planet you necessarily paint on a very large canvas indeed. This is a very difficult thing to do and Eddings avoids the point by making far too much of the action take place off stage. We only learn about it as characters describe what happened in response to questions from other characters. This unavoidably lends a distancing effect to the story and ultimately I ceased to care. It was too much a Greek Chorus and too little a story. I found it dull.

Tim Page is a photojournalist. During the Vietnam war he was one of the elite crew who brought that terrible war very close to home. Now he has returned to Vietnam and Cambodia and in the articles published in Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden he compares and contrasts the countries as they are today with the countries they were in the 1960s and 1970s when he lived there and reported the war. This is a harrowing book (particularly when it discusses the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Pol Pot's Cambodia) but it is a very important book. It puts history into perspective which is always a valuable insight to have, and it doesn't pull any punches.

Stephen King is up to volume 4 of The Green Mile and the plot complications come thick and fast. Mr Jingles plays a decisive part, and the grotesque events surrounding the bungled execution of the convict Eduard Delacroix are described in grisly detail. You'll need a strong stomach for this one. King has seldom done better.

Michael A. Cusumano & Richard W. Selby Microsoft Secrets Harper Collins
Stephen Gould Wild Side Tor
Terry Pratchett Feet of Clay Gollancz
  Johnny and the Bomb Doubleday
Dave Langford Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Quizbook  
  The Unseen University Challenge Vista
Tom Holt  My Hero Orbit
Robert Asprin & Linda Evans Wagers of Sin Baen
David & Leigh Eddings Belgarath the Sorcerer Del Rey
Tim Page Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden Simon & Schuster
Stephen King The Green Mile 4: The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix Penguin
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