I am vaguely familiar with the Greek gods and hero legends, so names like Zeus, Helios, Daedelus and Odysseus were familar. My knowledge of the Odyssey wasn’t so great that I knew the name Circe though.
Most of the ancient poems are told from a male perspective, and the women who feature in them are either in need of saving or are trying to injure the protagonist — either directly or by waylaying them. At least that’s how I recall them.
The gods are usually seen as capricious entities that take only passing interest in what transpires on Earth, and the Titans are rarely discussed outside the war to put them down that left the Olympians on top.
So to get a story about a female goddess, a titan nonetheless, and how she intersects with the epic tales, told from her own perspective, is an interesting idea. That said, without a 2-for-1 deal I’m not sure I’d have picked this up. Glad I did though.
The book makes for an interesting read and shines a light on some of the lesser-known characters of Greek mythology. It also makes the heroes seem far less heroic and a lot more tragic — but all the more human and relatable for that.
It does seem to cover some mundane episodes in immense detail and towards the end we get huge events summaried in a few paragraphs — granted not ones in which our protagonist is usually involved directly.
It’s read by Perdita Weeks, who has a voice like liquid gold, so it was a nice listening experience.
Good enough that I’m tempted to pick up her earlier work.
Genre: Historical Fiction
This was another one I got on a 2-for-1 deal, but I had my eye on this before that as it was well regarded and I like a bit of Roman historial fiction.
Goldsworthy doesn’t just write fiction books, he is also a historian with a doctorate who has written non-fiction and taught the subject.
So he has the chops when it comes to historical accuracy, but that wouldn’t mean much if the story and characters were cardboard. That’s not the case here, where we have a good range of characters and a protagonist you have no problem rooting for. This is not his first novel and the experience shows.
That said, his desire to talk about the details does mean there are longer-than-necessary passages where the troop’s equipment is discussed excessively, or every unit of the army gets several paragraphs to tell you all about them.
There are also several branches to the story that seem to be go nowhere, so it’s not perfect. And the (presumably) accurate naming does get a little grating.
It’s a solid story, based in Roman Britain, and although Vindolanda (the fort) existed, it doesn’t include any significant historical events so we can focus on the individuals and story without needing to hit specific beats.
Peter Noble does a good job narrating it.
If you’re a fan of people like Simon Scarrow then I think you’d enjoy this.
Genre: Historical Fiction
A Forest of StarsBuy NowBuy Now
I really enjoyed the first novel in this series — Hidden Empire — so it made sense to pick up the next book.
What a difference a book makes.
Looking back at my notes on the first book, I think the structure of jumping between characters was the same, but in this one I found the constant switching really irritating. None of the chapters is very long so you seem to flit about — and with nothing happening for a third of the book.
You can live with the chapter hoping at the start of the series as you need to introduce everything — but we know who the protagonists are now, so we can settle in until something happens with each of them. Not so here.
Perhaps that wouldn’t have been so bad if the story had any depth to it — but it doesn’t. The intrigue and plotting is childishly simple. We brush past a character that seems unaffected by being imprisoned and systematically raped over years. Other world-shaking events are equally brushed aside and overlooked with the characters they happen to given no time to deal with them.
To be fair, the action when it comes is entertaining — if somewhat short-lived.
I probably won’t bother with the rest of the series.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Saga of Seven Suns
FirewatchingBuy NowBuy Now
This was another I probably wouldn’t have picked up except it was on a deal.
I am also mindful I seem to get stuck in fantasy and sci-fi a fair bit and do try to branch out.
This is a gritty police procedural, something the Brits seems to do fairly well across all types of media. And combined with a village too. Although this isn’t Midsommer Murders.
Our characters are certainly not squeaky clean and perfect — although the men are hugely desirable to either sex it seems, in the usual Hollywood tradition.
There wasn’t much wrong with this, but I didn’t feel engaged with the characters, the pacing was very back heavy and the plot keeps the mystery by simply not revealing things until late on — and I still got to the perpetrator before they were exposed though.
If you’re after a competent murder mystery then this will do the job, although the subject matter gets challenging for those of a more sensitive disposition, if you want something a bit more innovative then look elsewhere.
Series: DS Adam Tyler
The Science of Everyday LifeBuy NowBuy Now
This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally pick up in audio format, as it’s so short (at four hours). Even in paperback it would be a slim thing coming in at only 224 pages. It does make it quick to get through though.
As it was available on an offer though, I took the chance.
This style of book if fairly common — bitesize science — where the author simple rattles through a bunch of facts at breakneck speed. They’re deeply unsatisfying.
This started off that way and I was all ready to give it a negative score. But bear with it and Jopson does recover and start to delve into each subject in more detail.
And, while there were some annecdotes I had heard before, and some facts have changed since this was released (which I was aware of, see The Half-Life of Facts), there were plenty that was knew to me, some that had never even occured to me.
The author reads this book too, and does a pretty good, bringing plenty of enthusiasm.
So if you’re looking for a short, light read about science, this could fit the bill.
Words of RadianceBuy NowBuy Now
The length of this was a consideration in my decision — 48 hours is a lot of listening time — but also knowing what I was getting played a part — this following my enjoyment of the previous book.
Taking up where The Way of Kings finished, the same cast returns, only they all end up close together rather than spread over continents. That means there are also far more interaction between them this time, where their stories were far more separate before.
If I’m honest, this is probably more of a 3.5 stars. I enjoyed it immensely, and I’ll pick up the rest of the series at some point, but it’s far from flawless.
To write a store this long featuring, really, only half-a-dozen main characters, you’re going to need to add some twists to the narrative. In this case, each time you think we’ve had a breakthrough there’s another setback or hurdle. It’s fine to start with but does become tiresome. Not to mention the irrational need to hide traits from one another — which is never rationalised that well.
Then there’s the sub-plots. One just ends. We hear nothing more about it past a certain point in the book. It pops up very briefly at the end but there’s no sign of it for a third of the book before that. The others aren’t handled much better.
Surly characters are another thing that grates over time. One of the main protagonists is a childish, grumpy bugger with a chip on his shoulder and that’s fine, but it’s played to death and makes for a very frustrating read (and this also feeds into the previous points about setbacks).
And then we have the PG-13 nature of the story. It covers some aspects on the grimier end of the spectrum, but this is definitely not Game of Thrones. We have courting and some teen-level heart fluttering, but aside from the occasional kiss there’s no mention of sex at all. There’s not all that much in the way of court intrigue either — it’s all done in the open. Murders are typically commited out of sight, and it’s only the aftermath that is spoken of. There’s not even a lot of drinking or fighting.
It’s an intersting enough story, and the characters are enjoyable walk alongside — and there were a few laugh-out-loud passages. Thankfully, I encountered few people when out walking while listening to this as the big grins I sported at times would have made me look maniacal.
If you’re happy with fantasy that leans more towards chivalric ideals and less towards the dark underbelly, combined with a story that is aimed at a less demanding reader, then this is another entertaining read.
Series: The Stormlight Archive
Humble PiBuy NowBuy Now
It took me a while to get through this, I just wasn’t in the mood at times and it wasn’t so good that I found myself drawn in.
The book is also split into many small annecdotes rather than larger, more in-depth stories. It feels more like a series of newspaper columns that have been collected together rather than something that was written as a larger whole from the start.
That structure makes it easy to dip in and out of, but also means you’re attention isn’t held.
Some of the stories I’ve heard before from other sources, so it felt a little like a rehash.
Parker’s writing style is fun, and he brings some energy to it, so it’s not a hard read and certainly has entertaining moments.
It’s a perfectly good book, but you could probably ready many, or at least similar, tales online with a quick Google. As such it’s not something I’d be likely recommend to anyone.
I Am PilgrimBuy NowBuy Now
This was one of those where I kept seeing good reviews of it. A totally different contemporary thriller. And it had been a while since I had read something not set it in a completely fantastic realm.
I’m struggling to think of an example, but the twin threads of this book remind me of other crime thrillers, or perhaps TV shows — seemingly separate at the start, they end up intertwined by the end.
It’s detailed, you have to give it that. Which means it’s far too long. So much could have been cut out of it without losing anything.
To start with the gritty, warts-and-all style feels refreshing, grounding. But it soon becomes laborious. As do the constant breakthroughs the protagonist makes, seemingly conjuring them from wafer thin strands. And the ending is just bizarre.
I struggled with some of the character motivations too.
There are parts I enjoyed, absolutely. There are plenty of thrills, but they’re counterbalanced by so much junk it can be tough to get through.
And that’s before we get to some serious stereotyping and (US) flag waving, which could certainly stand to be toned down.
Christopher Ragland does a solid job narrating.
It’s what used to be described as an airport novel — quite long and not overly complex, designed to get you through a flight. Not sure that still applies in the days of in-flight entertainment, when we are able to fly at all.
The Way of KingsBuy NowBuy Now
I elected to listen to this, in part, due to the length. The 1,000+ pages turn into around 45 hours of audio to work through. And this is just the first book of the trilogy, so it’s somewhat immense.
As with a story that runs to this length, we end up with not only a cast of characters, but multiple threads to follow (and which will no doubt all twine together at some stage).
The books also introduce a new magic system, which uses “stormlight” that is stored in gemstones and is recharged by the constant storms.
I really enjoyed this one, with each of the main characters proving interesting to follow and bringing their own unique voice as they take on their various trials. There was also enough that was new to make it stand out from the crowd.
While each of the cast face their own setbacks, and Sanderson times the breakouts masterfully for just when the audience wants them, they do seem a little convenient — with skills, direction changes and interventions that don’t always feel organic.
Michael Kramer, who reads all the male sections, and Kate Reading, who reads the female ones, do a good job generally, although they pronounce one character’s name so differently I didn’t know they were talking about the same person for a while.
I’ll definitely be picking up some more from the series though.
Series: The Stormlight Archive
The Lies of Locke LamoraBuy NowBuy Now
I was finally convinced by so many people recommending this one. And I’m very glad I listened.
This isn’t your typical story and it’s grittier than most fantasies I’ve read — aside from a morally dubious protagonist, there are plenty of deaths, beatings and torture. This adds a sense of peril most books seem to lack. To say our ‘heroes’ don’t come out unscathed is an understatement.
It’s not perfect. For example, although the story bundles along for the most part, there’s a perplexing sequence towards the end that adds nothing to the plot, and which could have been handled in a paragraph or two. Instead, it’s extended to almost an entire chapter and, aside from being boring, it just slows everything down.
That said, I did find myself listening to the odd podcast in order to extend the life of this because I was enjoying it so much and wanted to draw out the joy for as long as possible.
Michael Page does a good job reading it.
I’ll definitely be looking out the other books in the series.
Series: Gentleman Bastards
Lord of the Fire LandsBuy NowBuy Now
I remember enjoying the The Gilded Chain by this author, and this has been sat on my TBR shelf for a while since.
Although it takes place in the same universe, I don’t think there’s any overlap (aside from the odd character mention) and this can be read entirely independently.
This follows a story between the Baelish and Chivian kingdoms, and the Blades themselves play a relatively snall part.
The two nations are copies of historical ones — the Baels being Danes (AKA Vikings) and the Chivians a more ‘civilised’ European power.
This was originally released in 1999, so perhaps we can forgive what is now a fairly formulaic adventure. It’s heroes and villains, honour and blood feuds.
Another criticism would be the lack of female characters — and what few there are add very little to the story. Again, probably not something you would see in a more modern tale.
You can’t fault the action and twists though (even if some are more predictable than others) — there are plenty of both to keep you interested. There are intense sections where I was gripped and frantically turning pages.
All-in-all I enjoyed it and was able to burn through it quickly.
Series: Tales of the King's Blades
The Ballad of Songbirds and SnakesBuy NowBuy Now
I have read The Hunger Games trilogy, and seen the movies. So a prequel was obviously going to be of interest.
Following the originals was never going to be easy, but this initially does a pretty good job.
We jump back in time to when the main villain of the trilogy, President Snow, was just a teenager and the Hunger Games themselves were a low-budget gritty version of what we are familiar with.
No ranking system, no career volunteers, no cushy apartments, no parades and costumes. Just a cage in an empty zoo followed by an arena with some melee weapons.
That part of the story is fine, but after part two comes an abrupt change of pace. In fact the latter stages of the book seem to be full of several of these, which makes the plot feel very disjointed. There’s another about-turn near the end that caught me off-guard as well.
While the main characters, for the most part, are okay — some more memorable than others — there are plenty that are paper-thin and others which appear to be totally superflouous to the story. Their motivations seem to shift and alter without ryhme or reason as well.
The first trilogy was a little odd as the first book was clearly a big success and then there was a call for more books, but there didn’t seem to be a plan for that. The second essentially apes the first. And then it all falls apart in the third.
This book seems to follow a similar sequence, with the first two parts relatively coherent, and the third tacked on like an afterthought to extend the length.
If you’re a fan of the darkness of the originals, then this won’t disappoint — there are more than enough deaths to go around. Most are senseless or pointless. Much like a number of the story beats.
And then everything seems to drop into the protagonist’s lap come the end.
At the start I enjoyed it but the longer it went on the more confused I felt about what it was trying to achieve.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Hunger Games Trilogy
HyperionBuy NowBuy Now
This was one of those books I have been monitoring on my wishlist for some time, but it never quite convinced me enough to take the plunge.
Having had a few more recommendations added to the scales, I finally relented.
Set in the 29th Century, it follows a group of pilgrims making their way to the Time Tombs to meet a creature called the Shrike. They’re located on a world called Hyperion. The Shrike kills without warning but can also bestow gifts, and it has developed a cult following.
The book is often described as a sci-fi version of the The Canterbury Tales, with each pilgrim laying out their own story as to why they ended up on the journey.
Many of these are interesting and each character is well drawn. There are some intriguing ideas too, quite a few in fact, that I haven’t come across in other stories, which is always nice when you have read as many books as I have.
That said, it was long, meandering, and the inidividual stories vary in quality. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly engaging and the story ends before you get to the most interesting part (it would seem).
The various narrators of the audio version (there are several) do a good job of bringing unique voices to each character.
So, yes, a well-written book that is full of unique ideas, but not something to pick up for a quick dip.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Hyperion Cantos
The Blade ItselfBuy NowBuy Now
I picked this up as a recommendation from some of the BookTube community.
For starters, this is a pretty big. Well over 500 pages, or 22 hours of audio.
And yet, it feels like the first act of a three-act story. It is the first part of a trilogy, so setting up the story would make sense, but that’s all this seems to do.
The entire book is just collecting a bunch of characters together and only right at the end do they head off on what is the actual story.
The characters are interesting and their journey to the city where they all end up is fine. I can’t yet see how their traits and skills will intertwine with the larger goal — they have been specifically chosen, this isn’t some haphazard group — and they are all interesting, but eveything is hinted at and we don’t get any real payback. That makes it very frustrating.
There’s some action, with the second-to-last chapter being a breathless blast, but the rest is backstory that I assume doesn’t actually feed into the bigger picture and is just there to create rounded characters. And they are that, I can’t fault the character creation. I mean yes, it does rely on some cliches, but it adds something to each to help avoid a complete copy-paste of stereotypes. The feel like they have dirt under their fingernails, rather than being pristine creations.
Steven Pacey does a fantastic job narrating — bringing the characters to life and distinct enough that you never feel lost as to who is talking despite the vast array of characters.
I’ll be honest and say that, despite the little in the way of plot development I would happily pick up the next in the trilogy just to see what happens to the characters. That’s probably a good sign.
Series: The First Law
Black OpsBuy NowBuy Now
I think my dad gave me this one after having read it — it’s the sort of thing he tends to read. It was the sort of book I used to read, having churned my way through plenty of Clancy and the like in days past.
This one doesn’t feature a plot that threatens the world, mercifully, but has plenty of action around stopping terrorists, preventing assassination plots and destroying criminal networks.
Having said that, most of the action is over and done with fairly quickly and the bulk of the book becomes a tedious narration of flights, meetings and conversations. There are some tense moments, a few twists and turns but at no point do you feel this isn’t all going to end well. There’s rarely a sense of peril and any tight spot is usually exited by simply calling a friend.
This is the 12th book in the Spider Shepherd series, which might explain the lack of any character development or progression. Having jumped straight into a series, especially this late in it, means there’s not a lot of backstory still to uncover. That said, all of the characters were still paper thin and, if I had read the rest of the series, the constant mentions of each character’s CV would probably have been even more annoying.
To start with I was really enjoying this and burned through it — it’s not a challenging read — but the book slowly tapers off into forgetable escapades as the ‘mission’ outlines provided earlier on are simply played out to the letter — no stumbling blocks or unexpected turns, at least none that aren’t passed by with a shrug of the shoulders.
Clearly these books do well, but it felt like the writer phoned it in, which may explain how he can churn out a couple of books a year. Suitable for passing the time, but not much else.
Series: Spider Shepherd
Keeping It RealBuy NowBuy Now
I picked this up many years ago at a Waterstones when someone had gifted my some vouchers. It never quite convinced me whenever I looked at my TBR shelf. Now I know why.
Once I start a book I rarely abandon it — this one came very close to being binned on several occasions. I was dismayed within the first few chapters but kept going because I thought it would improve — it didn’t.
The characters are shallow, empty caricatures, and within minutes they’re in some teen-esque romance despite barely knowing or even having spoken to each other.
The plot, if you can call it that, is so disjointed and paced so bizarrely that it feels like the abridged audio version has been transferred back to written format.
For most of the book we storm along at breakneck speed. Then, when the stakes get raised, everything slows to a navel-gazing crawl.
It is mercifully short at least. Although the 280 pages of the version I have was likely kept down by the cramped typsetting. Which, along with the cover, suggest this was produced on a budget.
I assumed this was done under some sort of agreement the publisher couldn’t get out of, or perhaps for a friend of an executive, but there are four more books in the ‘Quantum Gravity’ series.
Don’t waste your time, would be my advice.
Series: Quantum Gravity
The Knife of Never Letting GoBuy NowBuy Now
Another one that has been sat on the TBR shelf for a while, largely because what I found by picking random pages didn’t grab me.
The reason for that is it’s a bit random — on the planet of New World (not the most imaginative name) men’s thoughts can be heard by everyone.
Todd is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, the last boy as all of the women were killed by the same germ that made men’s thoughts public. He’s a month from his thirteenth birthday, when he will officially become a man — and that day Prentisstown will go to war.
To avoid his fate, Todd runs. He bumps into a companion and together they have to race together to stay ahead of the pursuing army.
And that really is the main plot — it’s a frantic, sometimes frenetic, race through the story. You barely get chance to draw breath — even the short lulls are so information and revelation-packed that you don’t get much chance to settle.
Despite being a straightforward sprint to — I’m not joking — Haven, a vast array of setbacks, obstacles and betrayals are thrown into make progress a Herculean effort.
I burned through this in a few days — it was addictive to read. And, despite the shallow plot, there’s some character development and emotionally charged moments thrown in alongside the updates that reveal how many lies Todd has been told.
It is another story where the author clearly doesn’t want his protagonists to be happy (rarely a good source of drama to be fair) so it’s a little infuriating as a reader, and offers no easy relief.
I will definitely be looking at others in this series.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: Chaos Walking
Me Talk Pretty One DayBuy NowBuy Now
This is my second Sedaris book, the first being an audiobook of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, although I actually owned this before that, I just hadn’t gotten around to reading it.
It’s another collection of anecdotes from Sedaris’ life and experiences, this time from a broad time range — some from his childhood, some much more recent.
Again they are witty and interesting, his view of the world being somewhat unique, but they weren’t as funny as those in Diabetes for me.
That’s not to say there weren’t times when I burst out laughing while reading this.
I think the audio format adds to the enjoyment of his works as his delivery seems to bring another dimension that was lacking here.
If you like his work, or other authors who specialise in observation, then this is a perfectly palatable installment but, for me, not his best.
The Idiot BrainBuy NowBuy Now
Our brains are amazing things. They’re how we perceieve the world.
What we forgot is they exist separate from the world, isolated in a bone box. Everything they experience is fed to them tiny input channels: sight, sound, smell, etc.
This book tries to explain some of how it works. And offers some reasons for why. As well as pointing out how little we still know.
Although I listened to the book, I think it would be better to read it. I say that because I found myself missing bits as I wandered around doing things and the my attention was suddenly monopolised. That meant I had to keep skipping back and re-listening to parts.
Aside from being packed with fascinating tidbits and insight, Burnett is funny with it, so the book never feels like a dry slog.
Credit to Matt Addis for the reading as he does a great job too.
Well worth a look if you want to try and understand what goes on between your ears.
Ship of MagicBuy NowBuy Now
I stumbled across this on my Kindle while reading something else — it looks like I bought it about four years ago, presumably on some sort of deal (although it still looks to be available for a steal).
It’s a book that is populated with numerous characters, some of which may get more time than others, but ultimately it’s an ensemble with no single protagonist. As with these sorts of stories, the branches appear separate but slowly intertwine.
This isn’t a book about heroes either, with each person having flaws, moods and foibles. There are moments when they infuriate you balanced by times when they hook you. It makes for an engrossing story with pleny of chapters I devoured hungrily.
There are also plenty of female characters — in fantasy men seem to dominate, especially those based around historic time periods — and not just in ancillary parts or to make up the numbers. That was refreshing and in no way impacted the story negatively — by that I mean they are there to serve the plot, not just increase the diversity quota.
A read I enjoyed very much.
Series: Liveship Traders
Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our FutureBuy NowBuy Now
I picked this up on a Kindle deal — it’s the first book I’ve read on Kindle for quite a while.
Regardless of what you think of Musk, you can’t deny the man is hard to ignore. Whether you believe he’s a visionary engineer or a self-promoting shuckster, he and his companies’ are rarely out of the headlines.
This book details his life from childhood through to its release in 2015. Obviously, a lot has happened since then (one of the interesting parts is to see how the things they were working on then have come to fruition). It’s broken down into chapters to address different stages of his life, largely based on whatever company he was running at the time.
As you learn about his work ethic, you could argue that there was little else to write about.
The book seems focused more on documenting the history rather than providing any insight though. There’s a lot of “this happened, then this happened, then someone said this and Musk did that” rather than trying to understand what drove those factors.
Although the author was able to interview Musk, there’s little insight into his view of the world and very little discussion of the technical developments and hurdles that had to be overcome.
That leaves you with an interesting, but very high level look at Musk that is heaily skewed to a history of his business successes (and near failures).
I learned a few things, but ultimately it didn’t provide much insight beyond a basic timeline with some milestones tacked on.
EducatedBuy NowBuy Now
I remember this one coming up on a lot of best-of lists (including those of Obama and Bill Gates), and I’m very glad I added it to my TBR pile.
I will start by saying this is not an easy read — it’s dark in a lot of places, and each time you think we’re coming out of the tough times and things will get better you are dragged back in.
Raised by an overbearing survivalist father with a warped view of religion and a submissive mother, living with an abusive older brother and having been allowed a limited education, you’d be forgiven for thinking her story is going to be difficult to engage with.
That is not the case. Instead it gives a fascinating and important look into how we find our place in the world, how we find ourselves, and just what both physical and mental abuse can do.
The first few chapters didn’t get under my skin, but I was commited within a few more and I couldn’t get it out of my head — I was thinking about the book even when I wasn’t reading it.
As an insight to the battles that women still face — not just those raised by extremists — it’s an important book. Equally so for how psychological abuse can be as damaging as physical and have even longer-lasting effects. As a man, it is one of the few times I have been able to experience the terrible physicality men have, even without striking a blow.
Equally, it shows what can be achieved from the humblest of beginnings. Very much worth a read.
Let Not The DeepBuy NowBuy Now
Another one I picked up in a deal because it sounded interesting, and there weren’t many other options.
This apparently forms part of a quartet about the British military, but it focuses on the saving of a merchant ship by the RNLI, neither of which form part of the military — although it does feature various actors who are.
I will start by saying that this book was originally published in 1998 and the gender-roles were probably outdated at the time, now they just seem archaic — the men do all the heroic stuff and the women are left behind to fret.
It’s very much a a ‘boys-own’ adventure — with big, tough (but caring) men battling the elements and saving lives. It’s also very old-school in it’s handling of the mental states of those involved — buck your ideas up and keep your upper lip rigid no matter what internal turmoil.
The action was good and, despite being filled with stoic characters, the twists at the end did wrench me, so clearly it did a better job of engaging me than I’d thought.
It also did a very good job of showing the dangers at sea, the efforts a bunch of volunteers make whenever they’re called upon (I hope never to need the RNLI but you can’t doubt their commitment) and how people pull together in times of need — which seems somewhat resonant at the moment.
A good read if you like some action and bravery, but be prepared for some backward gender stereotyping.
Series: The British Military Quartet
SpellwrightBuy NowBuy Now
This is another example where I have no idea where I found this or who/what recommended it. It’s the first book in a trilogy.
There are many common elements to other fantasy novels: a young protagonist with an older mentor, a prophersy that is coming to pass, villains wishing to bring about destruction, misunderstanding from those in power.
Where it differs is the magical system, the shear number of magical languages (most books only have one) and the numerous races involved. More than one of each is rare, several takes it beyond what most fantasies cover. It’s a big bit of world building, too big to be explored in one small novel.
The plot is told at a fast pace, and this is combined with a limited number of locations and characters to drive the story forward with few respites. This, combined with a lot of lore being thrown at you, can make it a touch confusing (“He’s using what magical language now? Which one is that?”).
Some of the events seemed a little contrived, with the main character finding just what he needs at the right time. There’s plenty of action, and some deaths, although these seem to be skipped over with barely an effect on the characters themselves.
The ending was a little confusing because, despite having two perfectly logical endpoints, the author carries on a little way past both of them, but without any real reason. So it sort of peters out rather than having a defined finish.
That said, it was an engrossing and enjoyabe easy read. I shot through it in a few days (quick for me).
Series: The Spellwright Trilogy
Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman RepublicBuy NowBuy Now
Rome is an endlessly interesting topic. An empire that lasted for so long and achieved so much, plus has written records, is bound to have many stories.
This book focuses on some of the best-known and most turbulent parts of its history. The names covered will be familiar to most: Caesar, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Cicero, Mark Anthony, Octavian, Cleopatra.
The upheaval and continual fighting, both internal and external, make this part of history more complex than The Game of Thrones. Which is ultimately what it became — the victor becoming the first emperor in all but name.
The author does a good job of laying this all out in an easy-to-follow fashion, with only a desire to show the full breadth of his vocabulary being a slight annoyance.
As probably should be expected from a book that essentially just charts historic events, it does tend to get a bit dry in places. And the time covered seems a little odd in places. I realise there may not be events to tell throughout all these years but whole decades seem to be fast-forwarded through to then spend entire chapters on relatively small sections.
Interesting if, like me, you’re a fan of Roman history (or history in general), but much of it will have been covered by previous exposure, so possibly best for those with limited prior experience of the period.
The Serpent SwordBuy NowBuy Now
Picked this up on a deal.
Set in 7th Century Britain, it follows a young man as he becomes a warrior in the retinue of various kings of Northumbria.
Although set well before it, the story reminded me greatly of The Last Kingdom. They feature similar locales (Bebbenburg makes several appearances) and a rising warrior as the protagonist. Where the latter focuses on the battle between Saxon and Dane, this looks at Saxon against the Welsh.
The difference here is the lack of a guiding hand. Where Uhtred has Alfred as his overlord, Beobrand lacks that presence and it gives the story a much narrower field of view and a less-cohesive backbone.
Not to say that this is bad — there’s plenty of action, it’s constantly moving, but there are lots of episodes which simply appear and are discarded without any real impact on the characters. It does feel like the author just wanted to throw obstacles in the way, and even that he didn’t want the protagonist to be happy for long stretches, as any time things look to be going well his fortunes are suddenly reversed.
I’m not sure I’d encountered the word ‘craven’ before, but the author takes to it with glee — it’s rolled out way too often during several chapters.
A solid enough story, if somewhat uninspiring, which gets better toward the end. A reasonable start to a series.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Bernicia Chronicles
Twas the Nightshift Before ChristmasBuy NowBuy Now
Another short one to blow through. I was due to see him live soon, but it’s been postponed due to “the virus.”
While entertaining, and easy to read, with some genuinely laugh-out-loud passages, this felt like a bit of a cynical cash grab. I’ve not read his longer book yet (this was a gift), but apparently Christmas anecdotes were left out, so this seems like an excuse to use those in a stocking-filler format and still charge full price.
Still, this is a perfectly good antidote to the saccharine excess of Christmas and a timely reminder that, while you’re at home trying to O.D. on sugar in front of the TV, there are those, not just in hospitals, who put that aside to save lives and keep us safe.
Might have had more punch if the proceeds were donated to good causes though.
The Final EmpireBuy NowBuy Now
Not sure where I got the suggestion for this one. I suspect this was a random pick-up from Waterstones many years ago, prompted by a gift card. Recently, having been watching some ‘top 10’ videos on YouTube, it seems this series comes highly rated.
Having languished on my to-be-read shelf for a while, and having finished a few books in quick succession recently, I decided to go for something more substantial. Which I consder this to be, at 600+ pages (in this edition).
I upped my reading game as well — partly in response to my enjoyment of the book — so was still able to chomp through this pretty quickly (for me).
There aren’t too many new elements to the story. In fact, it shares a basic outline with Steelheart — a powerful, evil ruler keeps the populace under his thumb. One thing that is novel, and which I did like, was the magic system, which is based on metal. Each one allows the user access to particular traits — strength, emotional manipulation, enhanced senses, etc.
The story is very linear, very quick and engaging — there are few dull periods with another challenge, hurdle or action scene just around the corner. A little too regular to be honest. It felt less organic and made the plot noticeable. It was as if the author couldn’t let his characters have too much joy before bringing them to their knees again. Maybe that was the point (given the setup).
The characters too, while I liked them, were a little two-dimensional, especially the lesser characters. And the YA-level love story threaded loosely throughout was sappy.
That said, I romped through it, looking forward to each chance I had to return. It’s an easy, uncomplicated read. I think it could also be read as a standalone novel, though there are other books in the series (an original trilogy that has expanded since).
Still not sure if Sanderson is entirely my taste, but with his output there are at least plenty more titles and series for me to sample.
LongitudeBuy NowBuy Now
Like access to light at the flick of a switch, the modern world has become completely used to, and entirely dependant upon, accurate time-keeping. As with lighting, that wasn’t always the case though.
That lack of precision made things like navigation very difficult and very dangerous. Even today, the navigation system most of us rely on, GPS, is based on precision time. The position of the satellites, and the time provided by their onboard atomic clocks, is what allows us to know our location.
This book covers the travails of John Harrison, the inventor of the marine chronometer — a watch to keep time on boats. Having an instrument that could measure time accurately meant you could work out your longitude (by comparing it to the local time), thus helping you chart your position, and avoid nasty obstacles.
His winning of the awarded prize was far from a straightforward route, and one that required both ingenuity and perseverance to overcome an array of technical challenges and tho people who backed other methods.
The book isn’t long at 174 pages — apparently an extension of an article. It doesn’t go into any technical detail as it mentions the innovations Harrison introduced, but it does muster a good amount of indignation at his treatment.
As such, it’s an interesting but brief highlight reel of the solving of the longitude problem, which not only paved the way for accurate time-keeping, and not only opened up international trade, but saved many lives as well.
Worth a read to get some background on one of the world’s lesser-know geniuses.
DragonflightBuy NowBuy Now
Ranked among the greatest fantasy novels ever written, it’s interesting to find out that it started life as two separate novellas published in Analog (a science fiction magazine) way back in 1967.
This is the first of the Riders of Pern (or Chronicle of Pern as it says on the cover) series. Set on a planet long ago settled, and long ago forgotten, by humans. To help fight off the dreaded Threads, that fall when a sister planet gets close enough, dragons are deployed to burn them from the skies.
Although originally it was space-faring humans who landed on Pern, it has since regressed to a state closer to medieval Europe.
I have to say that it has been a long time since I have enjoyed a book this much, and a long time since I have taken to reading in preference to other activies. That, plus the relatively short length (347 pages in the edition I read) explain how I shot through this so quickly.
Is the book perfect? No. It’s filled with tropes and stereotypes, but as this was probably one of the books that helped create them, I’m choosing to overlook those transgressions.
Unlike many modern books, and perhaps due to originating as novellas, there’s not a lot of dawdling in the story. Everything is told a breakneck speed, bouncing from one significant event to the next. You don’t get a huge amount of time to immerse yourself in the world building, but you get enough for it to work while pressing on. Essentially, it skips all the pointless navel gazing and subplots. The latter may add depth, but I can’t say I missed them.
As a no-fuss, straight-shooting fantasy story it does everything you would want it to and nothing more. A great antidote to the 1,000+ page doorstops fantasy novels seem to have become today.
My only fear is the rest of the series won’t live up to the opening.
Series: Dragonriders of Pern
A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-fictionBuy NowBuy Now
Somewhat different to the usual Pratchett work, as this is purely non-fiction. The collection includes pieces from various points in his career, covering many topics.
Whether it’s writing about Christmas, accepting awards or discussing how he’d like to die, Pratchett is always clever and engaging.
Many of the works will make you smile, some will inspire you and others will remind you of the sadness of his loss at such a (relatively) young age.
There are plenty of repeated themes, with topics that he was clearly passionate about coming up time and again. His love of G. K. Chesterton, for example, is obvious throughout.
A good read, if a little sad, and a touch repetitive, which is doubly true of the final section covering his Alzheimers diagnosis and thoughts on assisted death.
PorcelainBuy NowBuy Now
If you’ve not heard of Moby, you’ll probably have heard one of his songs. They grace so many blockbuster movies, from the Bourne series to Any Given Sunday, Heat to Blue Crush that they’re almost impossible to miss. He’s an internationally known and well-regarded artist.
I assumed he’d had a fairly easy and straightforward rise to fame and fortune. That assumption turned out to be wrong.
This is very much a warts-and-all telling of his life, starting with the early days where he paid $50 a month to live in part of an abandoned warehouse with no running water. It charts him climbing the runs as a DJ, the slow rise of his initial hits and subsequent fall when he tried to move into metal.
It doesn’t shy away from his personal life, describing the excessive drinking, failed relationships and desperate sex. It’s a seedy, grimy look at someone living in New York through a tough period while working through the less glamourous side of the music business.
He reads it in his monosyllabic tone, never injecting emotion as he describes events that would make any of us cringe to recall. For that you have to give him kudos. Equally, the endless mentions of his sex acts with women ranging from strippers to models and almost anyone in between feel unneccesary and both degreading and boastful at the same time (although I suspect they are meant to show how grateful he has been that they picked the weird guy).
This book charts his life up to the creation, but not the release, of the album Play. As a breakout, it would be interesting to see how that changed things and he has a follow-on book called Then It Fell Apart that I’ll probably try and read at some point.
I Never Knew That About LondonBuy NowBuy Now
This was picked up on deal. In part because I love a fact. So this sounded right up my street.
It follows a course from east to west across London, covering each borough as it goes.
The facts vary from the small and personal (a famous person was born/died/went to school here) to the those that span continents or centuries or changed the world (inventions/government/societal change).
There’s no doubt this book is packed with interesting facts I didn’t know about London, but they’re delivered unrelentingly one after another like there’s some sort of quota per hour.
Instead of being knitted together in a story, the hook is a simple traverse across the city, which means you get the random selection of facts from each area thrown at you. This leaves you bouncing between numerous spheres, with very few related to one another.
As they pile up and one particularly interesting or thought-provoking one lands, you are barely given chance to digest it before the next, usually more mundane, one follows on and you’re forced to try and absorb that instead.
Imagine being fed a constant stream of doughballs without being allowed to stop for a sip of water.
This may work better as a physical book as you stroll around the streets, rather than an audiobook that is chomped through, albeit very competently, by Timothy Bentinck.
Less But BetterBuy NowBuy Now
If you have an interest in design you’ve likely heard of Dieter Rams. You’ve likely encountered some of the products he or his team have had a hand in regardless of whether you know the name — because he was a big part of the design team at Braun for many years.
I love many of the products they designed, from clocks to shavers to kitchen utensils. It’s a shame so few are still available.
This book is both a visual showcase, with many photos of products, but also some thoughts on design, his history at Braun and Ram’s experiences.
First published in 1995, this is the seventh edition. Which makes the numerous typos that remain quite shocking. Perhaps that’s because this is in both English and German.
The photos are generally good, though I’d have liked more breakdown for many of the products. The sections are nicely ordered, but they’re poorly organised, especially when it comes to the quotes about the images, which often left me scouring the page and guessing at what they related to.
As a book to flick through it would be fine, but for the price it needs to offer a lot more. This is less, but definitely not better.
Mail Obsession: A Journey Round Britain by PostcodeBuy NowBuy Now
A book where the author travels around the postcodes of the UK and presents a fact about each of them.
That’s probably simplifying it slightly as it’s crammed with facts in between each. You can tell Mason struggled to keep it to one per postcode and so exposes a bunch like he has fact Tourette’s and couldn’t keep them in.
I think the quote on the back cover from Reader’s Digest sums my reading of this book up really well:
Almost every page contains at least one thing that you’ll be itching to startle your friends with.
It’s a wonderful book about Mason’s travels around the UK, with little observations, snippets of overheard conversations and side notes aplenty. It’s entertaining throughout and you’ll definitely learn something new.
One thing I would criticise is that he doesn’t visit every postcode, which feels a bit of a cop-out and that the author was either in a hurry or lazy (which seems unlikely given the exploits documented).
The other thing I found a bit odd was the chosen fact in a number of instances. You have the whole history of a postcode, each of which the book clearly illustrates are packed with stories, and then you end up with things like:
LU (Luton): Nick Owen was once refused entry to the Nick Owen Lounge at Luton Town FC’s ground.
Comical, yes, but the best fact for the entire of Luton? I’d hope not.
That said, the book does highlight just how much has gone on in any area of the UK you chose to examine closely. Life is literally busting out at the seams.
If you love a fact, the more obscure the better, then this is a great read.
Under the EagleBuy NowBuy Now
Picked up on a deal as I like a good Roman legion story and I’d heard of Scarrow.
This is pretty standard fare — a new starter joins the Second Legion, who looks like he might not be the best fit, but is put under the wing of an experienced centurion.
The characters are pretty stereotyped, the ‘intrigue’ pretty rote and the outcome expected, but it’s a solid, sure-footed story that kept me listening contently throughout.
The pacing felt a little weird, presumably because it was always destined to be part of a series, with a long time being spent building up to the invasion of Britannia only for the events that take place during the initial landing to be over very quickly and far too simply. I even had to check this wasn’t an abridged version.
The McGuffin at the start seemed a bit odd as well, both pointless and obviously too small to be of the significance it supposedly carries.
I wasn’t sure I was going to like David Thorpe’s narration at the start, but I found it fine as it went along, so no complaints.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction of this sort (i.e. more fiction, less history) then it should pass the time with workmanlike efficiency.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: Eagles of the Empire
Blood RiverBuy NowBuy Now
A bit of a random one that I picked as part of a 3 for 2 deal.
Africa, once known as the Dark Continent, is still a bit of a mystery to outsiders — at least that’s how it seems to me. I’ve visited some of the north African countries, although not recently, and know people who have been to South Africa, but none who have ventured anywhere else.
Most of my knowledge stems from aid videos and news reports, which are hardly a true reflection.
Although more than ten years old, this book is a boots-on-the-ground look at the Congo, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to give it its full title. A country that is the 11th largest in the world and the 16th most populous (the UK is 78th and 22nd respectively). Butcher follows H.M. Stanley’s navigation of the Congo river
Less an inspirational trek through the jungle and more a series of sprints from one safe(-ish) haven to the next, relying heavily on generous local expertise, it provides a background to explore and examine the country’s history.
I still find the divergent point that started in the 1950s perplexing. It was a time when much of the world was at a similar level of development — many African and South American states were on a par with any of their Western counterparts. Yet while North America and Europe continued forward, many of these parts of the world stagnated or even regressed.
That is highlighted in this book — Butcher was able to see the ruins of previous infrastructure that has been left to rot. Buildings and whole towns have fallen into decay. Roads and railways have been reabsorbed by the jungle.
It also served to reinforce some of the ideas raised in books like The Bottom Billion and Why Nations Fail. It’s hard to listen to the stories of normal people who simply want reliable law and order so they can start to build something long term rather than be ready to flee into the bush at a moment’s notice. It’s also quite insightful as to how aid and the UN work.
It’s a fascinating look behind the headlines into what was happening in an African state. Albeit a look that is brief and narrow, with a journey that, while no doubt hard and perilous, felt like a cheat.
The audiobook is read by the author, who does a good job.
The Poppy WarBuy NowBuy Now
This was a recommendation from a ‘best’ list over at Goodreads. It sounded interesting, and there were comments about its similarities to The Name of the Wind, which is a book I enjoyed.
There’s a similarity in that the protagonist, Rin, goes to an academy, although that’s about it.
Despite being a fairly long book (500+ pages) the plot covers a long time period and so it still feels rushed. I was thankful it didn’t waste chapters covering the studying required by Rin to get into the school, but it then felt disjointed as it bounded through academic years and into the subsequent events.
While it sped through so much, one area it decided to linger for an inordinate amount of time was one of the massacres. The author seemed to revel in going into endless detail about how people had been tortured, murdered, raped and mutilated. After listening to ten minutes or so, I had to skip through a few minutes because it just didn’t end.
Although a fictional place, it’s clearly tied to the Japanese invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The experimentation and tactics were taken straight from those used by Unit 731 — similar atrocities to the ones carried out by the Nazis in concentration camps.
This was completely over the top and needless. Coming across as some sort of bitter muckracking rather than a plot device.
** spoilers **
At its heart, there’s a conflict in the main character, with warnings about the power she can access, yet her desire to embrace it. The assumption is that she will resist and we will see why this was a good decision. It therefore fell flat when the reverse is true, doubly so when it turned out Rin could control her power and therefore she was actually the monster.
Overall, it’s both too long and too short. Either less time needed to be covered in more detail, or it needed to be longer. The plot is a mess, the character development static and the action both confusing and pointless. I was willing to put this down to a poor translation job, but it wasn’t translated.
The further I went, hoping there would be some part worth it, the more I simply wanted it to end.
Series: The Poppy War
Science(ish)Buy NowBuy Now
A product of a podcast of the same name, this book takes several popular movies and uses them as a backdrop to explore various topics — from time travel to robots.
Most movies get a bad rap when it comes to the science they show. Storytellers take liberties for a variety of reasons — not all of them bad. There’s plenty of actual science underpinning them though.
This book isn’t just paying lip service to the topics either — it asks some big questions and tries to provide some answers, or at least state what we don’t know.
Despite discussing some very big and complex ideas — like blackholes — it does so in an engaging way and it’s still a pretty easy read. Yet it highlighted some things I didn’t know on topics I had encountered before.
If you like science, but don’t want to get bogged down in too much detail, this is a nice way to dip your toe.
How To Be a PirateBuy NowBuy Now
I’d had an audiobook of the first in this series, and so followed it up with this, the second title.
The movies that are based on this series, arguably, are better known. They are also very different to the books. These are aimed at kids, they feature characters with the same names, but that is about the only similarity.
This follows Hiccup in the days before he became a hero and leader of the Hairy Hooligans. He’s far from a brave, warrior-like viking, but seems to succeed regardless — and that is the point of these stories.
It was a quick read, entertaining and obviously has plenty to appeal to small children. For adults, it’s a little predictable, but certainly not bad for that.
Don’t expect complex or subtle plots, but you will see interesting and complex characters and the stories don’t follow the “chosen one” route to success. Hiccup succeeds despite his ‘shortcomings’ and that is what I like about them.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: How To Train Your Dragon
A Short History of EnglandBuy NowBuy Now
I like to think I know a reasonable amount of English history. Maybe I know a touch more than average, but my knowledge is far from complete.
This probably isn’t the book to round it out, but it does give you a whistle-stop tour starting around 400AD. If you’re simply looking to get a chronology of events, with a little bit of detail on each, this is a quick way to put the snippets you likely already know into some sort of order.
If you’re not a native Brit, then this probably serves as a better resource, enabling you to get the CliffsNotes version of English history.
It is also worth noting that this is specifically English history. While the other home nations get a mention — as our histories are heavily intertwined — it doesn’t delve into them in any detail except where it has an impact on England.
As we know less of events further in the past, the book’s content is skewed much more towards the present. Entire millennia pass in few paragraphs early on, while chapters are dedicated to a single decade towards the end.
I’m sure there are views that some people, and other historians, will disagree with, but the insight into the perceptions of the time proved interesting. Such a high-level overview can’t delve that deep though.
Although I already knew much of what was covered, there were plenty of pieces to add to my previous knowledge. Jenkins keeps everything skipping along without getting bogged down, making for a light, and easily accessible, read.
If you generally find history boring, this may be the answer to filling in those gaps to provide at least a basic understanding of English history — and quite how complex it is.
The Good FatherBuy NowBuy Now
I really enjoyed Before the Fall, the only other book I’ve read by this author. It helped make my mind up when it came time to pick up a new audiobook.
The story follows a father whose son shoots a US presidential candidate. He believes his son to be innocent and spends the book trying to prove that point.
** SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT **
I’m not sure why there are so many great reviews for this, because I found it very disappointing.
Large chunks of the book are spent giving you the history of various other assassinations and terrorist attacks in US history, from RFK to the University of Texas shooting in 1966 to the Oklahoma City bombing. They don’t add anything to the story and, arguably, are just there to bulk up the page count for an otherwise pretty thin narrative.
We’re led down various paths suggesting the young man in question may be innocent, or that he was somehow duped into the act. None of which pan out.
When it finally starts to become clear that he did actually do it, the reason given is unbelievably weak.
I only held on until the end because I was assuming there would be some sort of twist, but no.
In the end it just felt like a depressing and pointless story. Ironically, the snippets about the other perpetrators highlighted how much more interesting their stories were than the one given to this protagonist.
The various narrators do an adequate job, I can’t say they brought a whole lot to it though.
The PowerBuy NowBuy Now
Not sure where I got the recommendation for this, but it was the premise that intrigued me.
The story is told from the viewpoint of several different characters from totally different backgrounds, and they are constantly moving locations to add even more variety (it would have been interesting to see the changes within a specific community).
From a technical standpoint, there’s nothing to complain about — interesting and varied characters, a thought-provoking plot, and an interesting narrative.
As a thought exercise I feel it failed though. There seemed to be an assumption that men dominate the world (arguable) due to their (generally) superior size and strength and that removing, even reversing, that advantage would result in them becoming subservient and fearful. Or that women would, in only a handful of years, take on the worst traits of domination.
Things would change, absolutely — the removal of the physical threat against women would obviously be very beneficial — but gaining the sudden ability to zap someone isn’t going to reverse thousands of years of history. In the same way that it’s not the strongest, or most aggressive, men who head our countries, companies and rich lists.
Politicians don’t win elections based on whether they could beat their opponents in a fist fight. They have to convince the rest of us via rhetoric that they can govern better than the other options.
So, while the story starts well, it progressively goes off the rails in my eyes, becoming far too extreme. An interesting premise is twisted simply to provide social commentary, rather than providing insight into how that world might look.
It was an enjoyable read, fast-paced and action packed and, at times, a real page turner. Just don’t get too caught up with the flaws.
Genre: Science Fiction
NomadBuy NowBuy Now
This was another two-for-one offering on Audible.
The premise sounded interesting and it was a more generic tale (I try not to get pigeon-holed into specific genres).
Having said that, the core of the story is the tired premise of a secret service agent who gets accused of treachery by his own department and has to go on the run to clear his name. Not exactly new.
The rest of the story is a fairly generic thriller, albeit with some unique twists (the same, but different, as one of my old teachers used to say).
It was a pleasant enough yarn to listen to, and Colin Mace does an adequate job narrating, but it’s the sort of story you finish and instantly forget about.
Combine that with too many coincidences, paper-thin characters that are little more than stereotypes, a sprinkling of military tech references, such as drone model numbers (presumably to make it sound like the author knows what he’s talking about) and action sequences from Hollywood and it’s far from the best.
Series: Marc Dane
How to Stop TimeBuy NowBuy Now
What would happen if you didn’t age like everyone else and you lived longer, a lot longer. How much longer? Well, you were born in the 15th Century, but you look like you’re in your forties now.
That’s the situation the protagonist of this book is in.
It’s an interesting premise and it gives it license to jump around in time, place and situation to let us examine how living for that long could impact you. As well as trying to breathe life into historical periods, and people, compared to the static history we all know.
To that end, it spends the first 95% of the book navel-gazing via the main character, examining random events from his past and how they impact his present. Then we suddenly develop a point to the plot and wrap it up in a nice bow in the last couple of chapters.
That made it feel like the whole pace and point of the story was off. Dripping clues and devices from an early stage would have intertwined the two elements much better, rather than leaving one feeling like it was oddly bolted onto the other in order to provide an ending.
Genre: Science Fiction
The Ruby in the SmokeBuy NowBuy Now
I got this on a two-for-one deal via Audible. I thought it was a recent Pullman release, but it was originally published in 1985. It’s the first part in a quartet of Sally Lockhart novels.
There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue as you follow the protagonist — the aforementioned Sally Lockhart — but everything just falls into place far too easily. Every time she needs something — a new home, a helping hand, a crucial clue — one falls in her lap with little or no effort.
I can live with that at the start when you want to get the narrative on its feet, but it gets a bit ridiculous towards the end.
I wouldn’t class it as a bad book, or a bad story, it’s just a bit too much of an easy read. It’s the equivalent of a popcorn movie — switch off and enjoy. I suspect that, had it been written today, it would be a bit more complex.
I enjoyed it, but not sure I’d recommend it to anyone out of their teens.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: A Sally Lockhart Mystery
Children of DuneBuy NowBuy Now
I picked up the miniseries that stars James McAvoy on DVD a while back and was suitably lost in the story, and the low production value. I was hoping this would help make sense of it.
This was the final part of the three-book collection I had.
As the name suggests, it follows the children of Paul Maud’dib as they grow into adolescence on Dune, raised away from the cities as Fremen in a sietch (cave complex).
There’s some very good parts, some interesting action, some gripping moments as the pair, who look like children but have the memories of all of their ancestors, dish out philosophy and wisdom. Not all of it made sense though.
And then there’s the ending. It’s a mess. Aside from being unbelievably abrupt, it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story.
The narrative, up to that point, is more convoluted and nuanced than anything in Game of Thrones, annoyingly so at times, but the ending feels like the author was trying to get it under a certain word count and realised he was running out.
Maybe a second read would help, but not likely I’ll give it that chance.
Bones of the HillsBuy NowBuy Now
The third book in the series continues a little time after the second. This time the Mongols strike west to take on the Khwarazmian empire.
Filled with heroic and daring tales of battles, you’re never far from some action. That said, the books also try to show how much innovation the Mongols made, both by incorporating and adapting technologies and practices from those they conquered, and those they developed through the necessity of governing such a large empire.
There’s a paucity of first-hand accounts from Genghis’ reign, partly because the Mongols didn’t keep written records, so it’s hard to say what’s true and what’s not, but this seems to deviate quite a bit from the generally accepted history. So don’t expect historical accuracy.
Genghis’ general irritability and bi-polar nature grated a little here, with too many random outbursts or changes in direction to allow him to seem stable.
There is a nice level of tension maintained though. The Mongols, used to laying waste to all before them, do come under pressure and keeping you guessing about the outcomes and if they will be prevail is masterfully done.
Rupert Farley does a good job on the delivery.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Shoe DogBuy NowBuy Now
For those who are not aware, Phil Knight is the founder of Nike. In this book, Knight charts the history leading up to the establishment of Nike’s precursor, Blue Ribbon Shoes, through to Nike becoming an established player in the sports arena.
It’s an interesting story because it was far from a straight and easy road. Doing most things in the early sixties was a lot of hard work, but things like finances proved the biggest challenge, and it takes up a lot of time here. It’s an issue you feel wouldn’t exist today.
Most new businesses fail, and, no matter what you feel about the brand, it’s testament to the hard work, innovation and nerve that Knight, his co-founders and their early employees showed that underpins the behemoth Nike became.
I admired the level of honesty shown — Knight never claims to be a business genius, never claims to have done it alone, criticises his own management style and isn’t afraid to show how close he came to going of business on numerous occasions. That’s rare in the myth-based world of business celebrity.
That said, he breezes past a number of the accusations that have been leveled at the company over the years.
As an account of what it takes to build a company from selling shoes from the back of your car to global recognition, it’s hard to beat though.
Caliban’s WarBuy NowBuy Now
For those who are unaware, the Expanse series of books is now a TV series. I started watching after I had read the first book, Leviathan Wakes. The series continues on to cover the start of this book, so some of the plot was already known to me.
There were some deviations, as with all screen adaptations, and about half-way through it leaves the TV show behind (season 2 anyway). So I was then into new territory.
The overall plot was good, the main characters return, the story was interesting and there was some good tension.
I will say that there is a lot of naval gazing in this one. A lot of inner monologues about conflicting character emotions, internal struggles and justifications. Way too many. Quite a number of passages could have been cut without losing anything — there are times when you feel like saying: “I get it, okay?”
Jefferson Mays does another solid job narrating.
An enjoyable piece of sci-fi that contains enough action and intrigue to keep you engaged.
Genre: Science Fiction
Dune MessiahBuy NowBuy Now
This is a short entry compared to the others in the trilogy. It also involves a lot more navel-gazing than the first.
Gone are the battles, the fighting and the grand visions.
They’re replaced with plots, intrigue and battles of conscience. Having created an empire, set a galaxy-wide jihad in motion and been deified by his people, the new emperor must deal with his own inner demons.
There are no easy choices, but it seems to be less about the plots from without and more about the roads he must walk and the decisions he has to live with.
As such, it’s a deep read, but lacks something in the dynamism.
Pleasant enough but doesn’t have the grandeur of the first.
The Ascent of MoneyBuy NowBuy Now
This is a history of money. Why it developed, how various financial products came to be, and the events that affected the markets.
There’s some interesting tales, including a few I hadn’t heard before. Funny how money played a more significant role than you’ve been led to believe in some world events (notably wars and battles).
It’s also slightly unnerving how many collapses and scams there have been as well, and how many times the markets have been bailed out by governments.
Hugh Ross did a perfectly good job reading it.
As I said, a nice enough read, but didn’t really provide much beyond well-worn tales. As an overview it was pretty good.
Ghost in the WiresBuy NowBuy Now
I’m a fan of a book on hacking. I started with The Cuckoo’s Egg, way back when, which is still the best one I’ve read from the ‘white hat’ side, even if somewhat outdated these days.
The second book on hacking I ever read was Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura, the man who helped the FBI track down and finally capture Mitnick.
It was an entertaining read (from memory anyway, I haven’t read it for about 20 years) and cast Mitnick firmly as the villain. He was notorious by that time, as one of the few hackers who made it into the mainstream consciousness.
I don’t recall much from it, except details of Mitnick’s social engineering and cell phone firmware swapping — he never seemed all that technical to me.
This book fills in the other side of the story. Yes, Mitnick tries to make himself sound as innocent as possible and highlight at great length when the authorities didn’t play by the rules.
That said, he has some fair points. Which he argues articulately through an engaging narrative. He’s a good storyteller, even if he does wander down unrelated side alleys and belabour points from time-to-time.
There are parts where you want to point out a passage and ask what the hell he was thinking. Clearly he was driven by an addiction he couldn’t control.
I can see why he drove the authorities and phone companies nuts, why he was targeted so heavily (for making the FBI look incompetent or foolish), but some of the things linked to his name also hounded him (the price of star power).
It’s a good read because he’s a smart guy, as if staying ahead of his pursuers for that long wasn’t evidence enough. Would have been interesting to get interviews with those on the other side of the fence as well.
Certainly the best book I’ve read on hacking (especially social engineering) for a long time.
BearskinBuy NowBuy Now
This got recommended on a number of year end ‘best of’ lists so I made a note, plus the story sounded intriguing and very different to my usual staple (I’ve been trying to expand my reading horizons).
A sicario-trained biologist and former cash mule for a Mexican cartel, on the run from one of their hitmen, working as a caretaker on a preserve in Appalachia is pretty far from my usual furrow.
It’s an interesting story, well told. That’s not to say it’s perfect.
There’s a trippy section in the middle that’s too long, to confusing and adds little to the whole thing.
The clerk in a local store happening to be a security expert seems overly manufactured as well.
It was good to listen to though, with MacLeod Andrews doing a solid job.
And there are some thrilling sections that will keep you hooked.
DuneBuy NowBuy Now
I was aware of Dune from the movie, which is one of my favourites (it’s well worth a watch, because the design team was clearly on something strong). I knew it was based on a book and I’d been meaning to read it for a while.
I actually have the first three books in an omnibus edition.
One thing that struck me is how closely the movie sticks to the plot of the novel, lifting lines and entire scenes directly from the book — not something that happens very often.
Where it differs, I’d actually say the movie does a better job. Controversial, I know.
I say that because, while the book provides a bit more depth to certain elements, it seems shy of the action. Herbert loves inventing new terms, sects and religious elements, but any action passes in a few paragraphs or happens entirely off-screen.
Other than that, it’s brilliantly inventive, with scenes that I couldn’t pull myself away from sprinkled throughout.
I did find it hard to read without comparing it to the movie. The next next two should give me a different view.
They’re apparently re-making the movie for release in 2019, but having read it, I think it would have made a good TV series with as much murder and double-dealing as Game of Thrones.
Genre: Science Fiction
Letters to a Young PoetBuy NowBuy Now
This is a collection of letters from Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old officer cadet at military academy. The letters were sent between 1903 and 1908.
Kappus was an aspiring poet and reached out to Rilke as he was a former cadet at the same academy. He was originally looking for feedback on his work, but the letters go on to cover more general topics such as love, sex and loss.
This is considered a classic and is included in the Penguin Classics range.
It was given to me as it “contained advice for writers” — which I try and do when I stop getting distracted.
Honestly, I struggled to get through even the paltry 52 pages, and was glad it wasn’t any longer.
The letters are written in the overly florid style of the period, enhanced by a writer who makes everything even more long-winded and obtuse. There’s no straight-forward advice. It’s like mining for gems — you have to dig through the spoil to get anything at all.
Even then, it didn’t strike any chords with me. Perhaps I lack the insight or intelligence to discern the meaning from the babble but I was left confused rather than inspired. The fact that you only get one side (Rilke’s replies, not Kappus’ letters) doesn’t help you understand what question he’s replying to.
What I could discern, or have picked up from other people’s summaries, could have been distilled to a single page.
Unless you’re a poet from the early 20th Century, I wouldn’t bother.
Never Split the DifferenceBuy NowBuy Now
This book sells itself as all about negotiation, and I think most people would see that as aimed at salesmen or corporate bigwigs working on multi-million dollar deals. It’s not though. We negotiate pretty much every day in some capacity — whether it be with a spouse, your children, or your boss.
I always assumed good negotiators were those who could pour honey into the right ear or trick their opponents into submission. This book throws that antiquated idea out the window.
I found the insights quite eye-opening and tried to adopt a few of the ideas as I was reading it — knowing this was going to be a book I would revisit again and again to refresh my understanding.
It’s as much a psychology book as it is one about negotiation, focusing on understanding people’s desires and building empathy in order to form a partnership that can deliver a solution, rather than a battle to win and ‘put one over’ on the other party.
There are plenty of examples, both from the author’s FBI days (directly and indirectly) and from his students in more real-world scenarios.
An interesting read for anyone, not just those whose careers rely on striking deals.
To Pixar and BeyondBuy NowBuy Now
In 1994, Pixar was owned by Steve Jobs, who had been ejected from his first stint at Apple and hadn’t yet made his return. He had bought it from George Lucas when it was spun out of Lucasfilm.
At the time Levy joined, Jobs had already pumped $50 million into the business to keep it afloat and was writing cheques each month to prevent it going under. It had several loss-making divisions and was a year away from releasing Toy Story.
This book charts the decisions that Levy, along with Jobs and the rest of the management team, had to make in order to turn Pixar into a going concern, then take it through an IPO (one of the few for a movie studio) and into a business that went on to be acquired by Disney for $7.4 billion.
While it was interesting to understand those steps, there wasn’t a huge amount of depth, mainly because Levy doesn’t seem to have been responsible for most of the grunt work — he simply helped with the strategy. Or maybe he simply glosses over them, it’s hard to tell.
The early chapters offer more detail for the time covered, later ones jump through huge periods of the company’s history with a handful of sentences.
It does show how close Pixar came to going out of existence, how we may never have heard of it and that it could have been relegated to a historical footnote. Having great technology, talented animators and great stories is all well and good, but without the money to keep the lights on, the world would never know.
The final chapter is a little odd, as it strays from Pixar and cover Levy’s steps into Eastern philosophy, which seems a little at odds with the rest of the book.
Bronson Pinchot does a good job reading the book, so well in fact that I almost thought he was Levy.
It’s written engagingly, with some unique insights that Levy, as an outsider to the company, can provide — but this would have been better if it formed part of a larger narrative with accounts from other people who were at Pixar at the time, or were involved in these decisions.
A Man & His WatchBuy NowBuy Now
So, I’ve developed a bit of a watch habit over the last year. I’ve always liked watches but never been that worried about the details.
I stuck this on my Christmas list as it sounded interesting — a collection of photographs and stories about watches and their owners.
It’s more of a coffee-table book if I’m honest. Even the sort of thing you’d find in a waiting room, something you can dip into and read a few stories while waiting to be called for an appointment.
The photographs are beautiful. The range of contributors is a bit odd though. There are some famous names, some chefs, and a lot of watch sellers/journalists/company owners. That makes for a very narrow field. It feels like a boys club.
There’s also a lot of very expensive or luxury pieces, and a predominance of Rolex (I classified 52 as luxury, with 17 being from Rolex, 25 as non-luxury — and I was generous in my classification of non-luxury).
There are a few lower-end pieces (a couple of G-Shocks, a Sears Winnie the Pooh watch, some Swatches, etc), but invariably it’s all about watches that are super expensive — even among the high-end these are the ultra-rare Swiss pieces.
It’s nice enough to flick through, but with such a narrow field and limited space to discuss each piece (some contributions are literally a single paragraph) it doesn’t provide much more than an auction catalogue.
The Years of Rice and SaltBuy NowBuy Now
I’m reviewing this now, despite not finishing it, because it was a loaner from my library and they have since moved digital library providers so it’s unlikely I will get it again.
Described as an alternate history where the Black Death wipes out 99% of the European population instead of just a third. In that void, other cultures fill in the gaps and make the discoveries instead.
What it amounts to is a piecemeal breakdown of historical inventions, from philosophy to mathematics, technology and geography, and how they happened without Europe being around.
China discovers the Americas, for example, and the Moors aren’t ejected from Spain. Muslim scholars make numerous advancements (as they did). Africa is left to flourish without colonial intervention.
The plot is tethered to a series of shifting characters who are reincarnated, usually unknowingly, into each scenario (generally as people, sometimes as animals).
There doesn’t seem to be any underlying drive so we end up with a series of separate vignettes that don’t form a coherent story with any goals or development.
I only reached the mid-point, and simply elected not to take it out again as it simply wasn’t very engaging. Nice concept, just not executed very well.
Genre: Science Fiction
ArtemisBuy NowBuy Now
Weir is best-known for The Martian, his fictionalised account of a man stranded on Mars. He was heavily praised for the science and realism used to tell that story.
This is a different idea, but offers similar grounding in reality when it comes to the science of another heavenly body: the moon.
Humans have finally established a permanent base, a small city that has grown to a few thousand souls, partly to service the lunar tourist trade.
It’s an interesting idea, but rather than make it a a sterile, clean, scientific environment we instead find a frontier town, reminiscent in part of those founded in a gold rush. The novelty of the moon as a location is relied upon– and the contained nature would lend itself well to a TV series, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on Netflix or Amazon Prime, albeit with a bit more depth added.
While the characters are interesting enough, and the story makes good use of the backdrop, the constant interruptions and hurdles thrown in the path of the protagonist — Jazz — do get a little weary and seem overly convoluted. There was also an exercise in stereotype box-ticking as well (the big burly cop, the nerd, the estranged and slightly disappointed father).
With a female protagonist (an Arabic, female protagonist no less), it’s nice that we have a female narrator. Rosario Dawson does a good job, even if she struggles with the range of male voices a touch.
It’s engaging enough, but didn’t quite hit the high notes for me. A bit like our trips to the moon, it only seemed to scratch the surface rather than dig deep.
Genre: Science Fiction
Shadow ScaleBuy NowBuy Now
I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to complete this, as my local library service changed provider with very little notice while I was only half way through, but I doubled down and mainlined it. That shows how much I was hooked.
I liked the first book and this continues, with many of the same characters, but a very different story.
It was great to explore more of the world that Hartman has created, to learn more about the various races and cultures. If I’m honest, it stretched a bit in places because of that though, with sections that didn’t seem to move things forward, or which could have been achieved in a much shorter fashion.
I’d also criticise a bit of a deus-ex-machina ending that has very little foreshadowing. Having provided a very good villain, and hinted at a possible solution, this seems to be a sidenote in the final reckoning. Even the relationship triangles all neatly resolved themselves, a little too conveniently.
That said, it was a nice journey with lots of interesting ideas and was enjoyable to listen to. It was made so by the excellent work of Mandy Williams.
A nice way to spend (more than) a few hours.
The Gates of RomeBuy NowBuy Now
This series follows the rise of Julius Caesar, with this entry covering his early days up to the period where Caesar left Rome following the defeat of his uncle by Sulla and first joined the army.
The version I listened to was abridged, which I didn’t realise until after I’d started, or I wouldn’t have chosen it. That meant you race through the story very quickly and it’s more like a highlight reel.
That said, Alex Jennings does a good job on delivery.
It’s an interesting look at a great historical figure that doesn’t limit itself to the main protagonist and includes a number of ancillary characters who add to the story.
Apparently, it lacks something when it comes to historical accuracy though. Still, an entertaining read.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Adolf Hitler: My Part in his DownfallBuy NowBuy Now
When I tell you that Milligan, legendarily, had the words “I told you I was ill” inscribed on his tombstone, you understand the sort of person you’re dealing with.
Most war movies, histories and biographies deal with the act of fighting, either to indicate how events unfolded or show acts of bravery. Less well covered is the fact that large parts of the British army spent years doing nothing but moving around England after Dunkirk.
That is the part that this section of Milligan’s memoirs covers. He has a range of other titles that detail his later activities in North Africa and Italy. As such, this is a short work (144 pages).
At first I wasn’t sure if he was simply spinning a yarn, such is his inherent zaniness, but as the general boredom of army life is laid bare you get to see the truth through his eyes — he was a man who could make any situation funny, and it’s probably what kept him sane.
It’s read by the author in his usual style, which is to say fast and exuberant. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was on fast-forward. This made it a little hard to keep up at first, but I soon got used to it.
It’s an entertaining insight into what went on in wartime Britain, for men who hadn’t yet been called into battle.
Series: pike Milligan War Memoirs
Apollo 8Buy NowBuy Now
Who doesn’t like a bit of space travel? The number of people who follow every SpaceX launch tells you it’s still something that can hold the public’s attention.
The majesty seems to have been lost a little though, as if going to space has become routine, which is definitely is not.
Apollo 8 was the first mission that left Earth orbit to reach the moon. The astronauts didn’t land, but took photos, readings and gave the equipment a trial run ahead of the Apollo 11 mission that launched a year later.
This book attempts to tie together the various lives that flowed together to end up with three men — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders — on a flight to the moon.
Rather than just focus on NASA, which was only a decade old at the time, Kluger goes back to chart how some of the key men got to where they were, and how they contributed to the success of the mission.
It doesn’t need to try very hard to highlight how complex an undertaking it was, the bravery of the astronauts (who had seen colleagues die on the launch pad only the previous year in Apollo 1) and the suffering of their families as they made strides in the unforgiving void of space.
The description of the window in the atmosphere the crew had to hit on the return journey so they entered at the correct angle is enough to make most people sick with worry.
It’s well read by Brian Troxell, even if some of his pronunciation is odd to English ears.
Well told, with a good amount of detail, while avoiding getting bogged down in it, this strikes the right balance to provide an interesting and gripping tale.
Things to Make and Do in the Fourth DimensionBuy NowBuy Now
I skipped through large sections of this book. Something I rarely do and am even less proud of, but sometimes it is necessary. I did give it the first 200 pages, but that wasn’t enough.
To be fair, this wasn’t the book’s fault. It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I like a book on numbers, I really enjoyed Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, but this was totally different.
Rather than looking at fascinating things to do with numbers, this is more a plaything for numbers. Whether you’re exploring random (and arbitrary) sequences, or cutting out shapes, or using straws, it really wasn’t for me. It reminded me a child’s activity book, all it lacked was some colouring in.
I’m a purpose kinda guy. Maths, and numbers, serve a purpose. I don’t sit down to find weird correlations that don’t deliver anything useful, just for fun.
Matt is that kind of guy.
That said, there were a few chapters I found intriguing — the one on computers, for example, it being close to my heart.
It seemed a bit of an ill-formed idea. There’s no real structure or goal, it’s just chapters on a variety of topics strung together.
If you’re similar to the author and love numbers, this should be an interesting book. If you’re not, steer well clear.
SleepBuy NowBuy Now
Sleep. We all do it, but no one teaches us how. We’re all expected to know.
I’ve picked up various tips and tricks, both based on my own trial and error, and the occasional article I’ve skimmed, but I’ve never set about breaking it down. I know what I prefer and assume that’s right, for me at least.
Considering how much of an impact it can have on our health (physical and mental) and performance, it’s probably long past time we all took a bit more of an analytical look.
Which is where this book comes in.
The author has worked with a wide variety of, mainly sports, stars in an effort to get a few extra percent out of them. This is a summary of the sort of things he does when he consults.
The chapter on beds alone was very interesting — and who gets taught what a good bed looks like? Probably the sort of thing we should teach in schools, in favour of stuff you never use!
That said, it’s quite a short read, doesn’t go too deep, spends a lot of time speaking about pampered athletes and the author doesn’t appear to have any academic credentials so no official stamp that he knows what he’s talking about.
I found myself agreeing with a lot of the advice, and felt it had a ring of truth as it matched a number of tricks I’ve discovered on my own, but that could simply be confirmation bias.
Conversely, he has worked with a lot of big names and has some impressive testimonials.
I listened to the audio version, which is read by the author. He doesn’t do a bad job but could probably have left it to a professional as he has a tendency to add odd pauses mid-sentence that disrupted the flow.
It was good enough that I bought a couple of copies for family members who I know struggle in the sleep department though.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustBuy NowBuy Now
Harry August ages and dies like anyone else, but he is reborn each time to live again, with the memories of his previous lives intact.
Harry isn’t the only one, there are others, some of whom form the Cronus Club — they help each other out during those turbulent years when you appear to be a child, but are a good deal older.
A message is sent back from future generations of the Club: the world is ending.
It’s a very interesting concept and following Harry — initially through his lives as he pursues and encounters various things, then as he takes on the task of saving the future — is great fun and well written.
At times it was breathlessly thrilling, a real page-turner. At others it seemed to drone on about unimportant details.
Slowly, the threat emerges and I assume some clever ploy will be involved, some outlining as to why the antagonist is wrong, maybe a way to render them harmless. A giant MacGuffin is dangled in front of us.
Then it just… ends.
I had a similar criticism of The Gameshouse — good idea, nice setup, weak ending. I put that down to the fact that the stories were separate novellas being knitted together, but that’s not the case here.
So, a good read, at least until the final few pages, when everything comes screeching to a halt.
Definitely an author I will keep an eye on though. If she can get the endings right, the books will have no problems earning that last star.
Where Good Ideas Come FromBuy NowBuy Now
The title isn’t entirely accurate. This doesn’t cover where good ideas comes from, but rather what things prove conducive to generating ideas. These are summarised in seven patterns:
The adjacent possible
Essentially, that adjacent thoughts and technologies can spur ideas.
That well-connected groups generate more ideas, by sharing and spurring each other on.
The slow hunch
That is to say, an idea that builds over time as parts are added to it, like a snowball going down hill.
Things falling into your lap.
Profiting from mistakes, if you recognise them.
Using ideas or technologies in new ways.
Having a system or workspace conducive to generating ideas, such as the Internet.
It was an interesting read, providing plenty of insights while trying to wrap some coherent structure around something that is so fleeting, but important.
It’s nice to see him try and break down the idea of the “lone genius” as well.
A very good read, and probably an essential one for those who work in industries or sectors that rely on ideas and developments.
What Do You Care What Other People Think?Buy NowBuy Now
I like Feynman. He’s the sort of guy that it’s hard not to like due to his childish enthusiasm and unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
I’d heard good things about his other books, but had only really encountered him in smaller pieces and videos.
This work was released posthumously, being the last book he was able to prepare.
So, it’s a little sad to say it was disappointing.
The early parts of the book briefly cover his childhood and first marriage. There are interesting insights into that period, but they don’t offer anything especially startling, although they do show where the book’s title comes from.
Then there’s a section of letters, which largely consist of Feynman’s views of the country he’s visiting at the time and gripes about various things — usually stupid people.
The last, and largest, section of the book is dedicated to his time on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger disaster.
This provides some interesting insights into how NASA operated and some of the Shuttle systems. It even includes his appendix from the report. It illustrates how he struggled to find out what they needed to know, and that his report was full of valid criticisms of the organisation.
One of the episodes credited to Feynman is the demonstration of how poorly the rubber O-rings performed at low temperatures — something that, it turns out, was suggested to him by Donald Kutyna, although Feynman speculates he was passing on information from a NASA engineer.
Couple this with a pretty flat and uninspiring narration by Raymond Todd and you have a fairly dull book, which is tough to do with an author as entertaining as Feynman.
If you’re a fan of the man, or are interested in the Rogers Commission, or want to understand the potential pitfalls of management deluding themselves instead of listening to their engineers, then take a look. Otherwise, there are better reads.
Lords of the BowBuy NowBuy Now
The second part of the Conqueror series continues the history of Temujin (Genghis Khan), starting from the final days of forming the Mongol nation and on as he invades the lands of their long-time enemy, the Chin.
It follows the impressive feats of the hoard as it sweeps through the lands of more ‘developed’ and ‘civilised’ races and the challenges the khan faces both from within his people and when going up against a new enemy.
If I have a criticism, it’s that there’s not much character development from the existing cast. They inhabit the roles from the previous book and don’t seem to progress.
It’s read well enough, although without a huge amount of character separation for the minor roles, which makes it a little confusing at times due to the myriad cast.
It wouldn’t surprise me if someone turned this into a TV series, as it offers a lot of the draw that Game of Thrones has found success with.
A solid entry that I found myself listening to whenever I could, rather the limiting it to the usual windows of opportunity, and I look forward to the rest of the series.
Genre: Historical Fiction
An Officer and a SpyBuy NowBuy Now
I am a big fan of Harris’ work. Not that I have swooned over every one of his books, but they’re generally good.
For those unfamiliar, he writes historical fictional, often based on figures or events that took place. This novel follows the Dreyfus Affair — as it is known — where an innocent army officer was accused of being a spy.
Harris picks the protagonist well. While Picquart may not be whiter-than-white, he is an honourable man and his desire for justice provides the backbone of the story. Playing on this is what drives the second half of the book, while the first focuses on his investigation and revelations.
Although the events take place over many years, the author doesn’t spend a lot of time on the details once he has stacked up the evidence — it’s a good example for those that feel they need to walk you through every meal of every day. Instead, the latter half of the book races through the highlights, stopping briefly to let you revel in the landmark moments. It’s like watching a movie and fast-forwarding through the boring bits.
That pace helps make it hard to put down, because each new section brings another significant development, piece of evidence or injustice. He uses our own indignation and incredulity to good effect.
Obviously this is told from one side, so I’m sure certain things were left out in an effort to un-muddy the waters.
If you like a bit of moral outrage, believe in government ineptitude and want to see how far people will go to cover up mistakes, this is a book for you.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Chasing the DimeBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve not read anything by Connelly before, but I was aware of who he is. I thought this would be a change from my usual mix of genres.
It starts with coincidence and throws a few twists at you. Unfortunately, most of them were guessable. While it was a reasonable story, capably told, it was unremarkable and, if this is an indication of the author’s other work, I can’t see why he’s sold so many books.
Therefore, I assume this isn’t up to the usual standard.
The version I listened to was abridged (something I wasn’t aware of before I started as I usually avoid them), which may have had an impact though. Maybe I lost some of the nuances and depth.
Alfred Molina does an adequate job reading it. He gets out of the way and doesn’t take away from the story.
All in all, a pretty tepid murder mystery. If it were a movie, it would be made for TV.
AfterpartyBuy NowBuy Now
Our protagonist helped create a drug that alters the brain so you feel a divine presence, and, if taken in high enough doses, can see and interact with it as well.
It’s a very interesting idea, and the mystery around who has put this drug, never approved for release, on the street is what drives the narrative.
In parts, it was exciting and engaging, in others it felt a little mundane, even repetitive. It gets better towards the end, but the climax seems to come and go quickly and without reaching the heights I was expecting.
I also felt the ‘revelations’ about prior events could have been extracted in a more interesting fashion, rather than simply dumped into the exposition, almost as a side note.
That said, a perfectly engaging and easy read with some unique (to me) visions of the future.
Genre: Science Fiction
InheritanceBuy NowBuy Now
This took a while to get through, in part because it’s so large — coming in at 880 pages. Also because the audiobook was split into two pieces and, lastly, I kept forgetting to renew my library rental, meaning I had to wait to get access to it again.
I could have saved myself some time as, what you would assume would be the climax — the battle with Galbatorix — occurs considerably before the end of the book. What follows is a lot of wasted material as the author either reluctantly hangs on to the world he has created, or tries to emulate Lord of the Rings.
I could have stopped two-thirds through and not missed anything. Up to that point it wasn’t bad. There’s some good action sprinkled with different ideas.
It’s interesting looking back at my reviews of the previous installments. Obviously my tastes have changed, and I suspect the fantasy genre has moved on in that time as well. After the blood, guts and shifting allegiances in Game of Thrones, this seems a very pedestrian story. Not only is the plot linear, with few twists or complexities, but it feels very PG-13 as well.
This is a Young Adult tale, to be fair, but there’s even a lack of serious threat it seems. When injuries can be repaired by magic, wounds rarely prove fatal so no one is in real peril. It’s like walking a tight rope with a net below. Then the final battle relies on some deus ex machina to overcome the seemingly impossibly odds.
There’s talk of another book set in Alagaësia — it would be interesting to see how it matures now that Paolini is older.
If you’re a younger reader, the series is pleasant enough, but for older readers who like to dip into YA, this is probably one you can skip.
Series: Inheritance Cycle
Blart: The Boy Who Didn’t Want to Save the WorldBuy NowBuy Now
A story about an anti-hero, well, a null hero really. Blart is a pig farmer, he wants nothing to do with quests, but is forced to join one, by a wizard.
They soon pick up an oafish warrior who wants to become a knight, a grumpy princess and a misguided dwarf. Oh, and there is a flying horse, and some dragons.
So it’s filled with the usual fantasy tropes.
Their aim is to save the world from a dark lord, and Blart happens to be the one person who can save it. There is magic, and adventure, and hijinks.
Except everything’s twisted. Our hero has no desire to be a hero, and no heroic traits. Instead, he’s a useless, whiny lump.
The story is trying to send up the stereotypical fantastical elements made famous by the better-known books in this genre. Once you get past that, the story’s not particularly interesting and it just seems a little lazy, especially the ending.
There’s a second book in the series, but I don’t think I’ll pick it up.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Manhattan in ReverseBuy NowBuy Now
Known for his large space operas, even Hamilton prefaces this book saying he doesn’t write too many short stories.
To be fair, some of these edge toward novella-length, rather than being particularly short.
I thought I would break it down by story.
Watching Trees Grow
An alternative history that leapfrogs through centuries to show us various moments while casing it in a murder-mystery framework. An intriguing story that I enjoyed.
A wormhole is opened to a new world and people are offered an escape from crumbling Britain. A fairly anemic story with nothing special about it.
If at first…
An fun and clever story about time travel.
The Forever Kitten
The shortest story and the weakest for me.
Blessed by an Angel
Featuring highers and advancers, which previous readers of Hamlton’s work will be familiar with, but not a strong story.
The Demon Trap
Paula Myo returns for another investigation. One I really enjoyed, probably the strongest story in the collection.
Manhattan in Reverse
Another Paula Myo story, something a bit different. Not the most complex, but competent.
If you’re a fan of Hamilton’s work, it’s probably worth picking up, but it’s not a ground-breaking collection by any means. Nothing bad, and some good entries.
Genre: Science Fiction
Fatal System ErrorBuy NowBuy Now
I work in the tech industry and have an interest in cybercrime, especially tales from the front lines. I put some of that down to Cliff Stoll’s excellent account — still the best book I’ve read on the subject.
This professed to detail the story of the hunt for shadowy crime lords who use the web for their nefarious schemes, whether it be spam email, viruses, blackmail, identity or corporate theft and everything else besides (there’s some overlap with Krebs’ book).
What you actually get is a pretty turgid account of two people; one the founder of a company that defends websites against attack, the other a British detective trying to arrest the hackers identified as performing the attacks.
What it shows is the lack of engagement from law enforcement, the impotency of chasing criminals across multiple jurisdictions — especially those that are willing to turn a blind eye to such activities — and just how hard it is to bring the perpetrators to justice.
There’s very little technical information about what was done, from the attack angle, the defense or how they tracked the attackers down. It also focuses heavily on Russia and some of the former Eastern Bloc states — briefly mentioning China. Granted, they have been identified as a large source and the book was published in 2010, so is somewhat out of date.
A book simply isn’t the right medium for such a fast-moving topic, unless you’re detailing a specific attack, and then it needs to be a lot more detailed. This covers little ground, was out of date by the time it was printed and hasn’t aged too well — except to highlight the ongoing difficulties.
It’s not a particularly long book either. The quoted page count (304) includes all of the references and the index. The content only runs 251. That leaves the final chapter — where the author attempts some sort of treatise on what must be done to defend the web — as a rush of ideas that lack any evidence to support them.
While it would likely only appeal to those in the industry in the first place, this is a tough sell even to them. Worth skipping.
Before the FallBuy NowBuy Now
I have absolutely no idea where I got the recommendation for this book, but wherever it was deserves some credit.
The book tells the tale of a private jet that crashes into the ocean, with only two survivors: a four-year-old boy, who stands to inherit millions, and an unknown painter. Together, they make the seemingly impossible swim to shore in the black of night.
What follows is split between retrospectives of the other passengers, their lives and the events leading up to them being on the plane, and what follows — the investigation, the press frenzy, the impact on the lives of those connected.
The flashbacks help to round out each of the characters, both the big and small, and really help ground the story. To be fair, the whole thing is told in a way that limits the fantastical elements and gives it the grit of reality.
It comes together to create a really enjoyable read that, at times, really had me hooked and turning pages frantically.
It’s not perfect, sure. My main gripe is that there’s a bit too much navel-gazing at times, a little bit too much existentialism. The bitty dialogue with pauses and unfinished sentences can get a little annoying as well. The motivation for some of the events didn’t seem strong enough to me, either.
Those are minor though, things you can skip over or push through. Otherwise a great read.
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense
Down to the WireBuy NowBuy Now
Honestly, I considered giving up on this a couple of times. I wanted to try something that wasn’t fantasy or science fiction or non-fiction, the categories I seem to keep falling into.
This is a paint-by-numbers thriller. By that I mean the characters are thin, bland stereotypes and the plot, while is has some turns to keep you guessing, ultimately has no depth, no meaning.
Everything just sort of ambles along. It’s the book equivalent of a TV movie.
Matt Wolfe does a pretty-average job reading too. His choice of voices seemed a little odd. It was easy enough to listen to though. Competent but unremarkable.
Definitely one to skip.
Let’s Explore Diabetes With OwlsBuy NowBuy Now
I had no idea what this was about heading in. I kept stumbling across Sedaris’ name in various places, without any real context. The title of the book was intriguing, so I took a punt.
It consists of several ‘essays’ about events or memories taken from the author’s life, including everything from shopping for a stuffed owl to dentistry to travel and a colonoscopy. There are few books that cover such a wide variety of topics. Much of it is based on his keen observational skill and his willingness to talk, and listen, to anyone.
Not knowing much about Sedaris, I get the impression he’s a modern-day Truman Capote. One of those people who can make any tale interesting and doesn’t really do anything, yet finds time to put pen to paper and can turn anything he writes into a hit. A darling of the literati.
I found the book charming, and interesting, and literally laugh-out-loud funny. Granted there are also a few passages that I didn’t appreciate while preparing dinner, and others that got caught up in the minutiae. None of the essays is very long though, so a different one is usually along fairly quickly.
The benefit with the audio version is that, not only is the entire book read by the author, but several chapters are recorded from stage shows and include a performance in front of an audience.
I’m not sure how to describe it, only to say that if you’re after something entertaining that bridges the gap between fiction and the often-stuffy non-fiction, this may be the answer.
Raising SteamBuy NowBuy Now
I approached this book — the last of the Discworld series Terry was able to write before his untimely death — with some trepidation, in part because I was saving it, like you would a vintage wine.
Terry’s books are lumped into the categories of fantasy and comedy, two genres that don’t always get the plaudits they deserve (excluding some ‘high’ fantasy). His books are so much more than that though, covering satire, social commentary and observation.
This book focuses on the arrival of steam to the Discworld. That simply provides a backdrop to pulling in the great cast that has built up throughout the series, some for little more than cameos. There are new faces, sure, but the old ones lend the book the feeling of a send-off. A last hurrah.
If I’m honest, this didn’t seem to have the toil of the previous books. Things, especially with so many Discworld legends called upon, seemed to go a little too straight and there never seemed to be a doubt how they would turn out. And if the legends couldn’t do it, the goblins seemed to fill the gap instead.
The sped-up timeline and the frequent hops over ‘the boring bits’ both make it feel a rush. There’s enough meat, cunning and clever play to keep you entertained though.
I still have a couple of short-story collections, plus some of the older Discworld novels to savour, so this won’t be my last Pratchett book, but it’s still sad.
Some people don’t just enrich the world, they make it shine brighter. Terry was one of those, and we who remain must do so in a paler reality. At least his words can live on.
Maybe not the best entry, but a good sign-off to a great series.
Wolf of the PlainsBuy NowBuy Now
This is the first in Iggulden’s series following the life of Temujin, better known to the world as Genghis Khan.
Although he has a somewhat unsavory reputation in the West, he’s a character I find very interesting, both for uniting the warring Mongol tribes, but also for the empire he built. He was quick to assimilate technologies, build infrastructure and innovate.
The story starts from his early years through to his late teens, and his rise from an outcast to the kahn of several tribes.
It pulls no punches, showing the brutal landscape warts and all. Rape, murder and hardship are integral to the plot so this is not a story for those of a delicate disposition.
I have no idea how realistic the world drawn is to the actual Mongol empire — few could even guess — but nothing stood out as obviously jarring.
An engaging tale about an engaging leader. Although our protagonist doesn’t have an easy ride, I did feel at times that it was a little too straightforward though. Especially as he knits the tribes together.
Still, good fun and I look forward to the rest of the series.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Spam NationBuy NowBuy Now
Krebs has become a celebrity in the security community, one of the few well-known names that have made it into the mainstream media. So I was expecting this to be a detailed walk through the how and why of spam. That’s not what I got though.
The author started out as a journalist, and it’s this part that leads here. There’s barely a mention of tech and how the spam networks were assembled, instead we get endless lists of people and an organisational overview. In fact, the whole book reads like an extended column piece. It could, and probably should, have been released as a longform article.
There are some interesting chapters, like looking at the reasons people buy things at the prompting of spam emails. They are pretty varied, but they distill down to the same reasons people pirated media in the days of Napster: cost and because they couldn’t find a legitimate source.
He spends a lot of time introducing us to a myriad of (predominantly) Russians, but doesn’t do much more than report their boasting an in-fighting — there’s no detail on how or why. The same goes about the chapter on how many of these networks were attacked, which was largely financial rather than technical.
There’s not much to dislike, but equally little to engage you either. It’s a reporter’s summary of a bunch of evidence and notes that he’s accumulated — largely by being given them rather than discovering anything — as if he didn’t want it to go to waste. Even for those interested in the subject it’s pretty dull.
Eagles at WarBuy NowBuy Now
Another book I stumbled across and liked the description enough to give it a go. I’m also a fan of Rome so it tied into my other interests.
The plot focuses on the battle of Teutoburg Forest, where an alliance of Germanic tribes ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions in 9 CE, with characters on both side lending their viewpoints.
Although a fictional account, it’s clear the author makes use of a lot of the known events, based on historical sources, to back up the tale. I’m far from an expert, but it sounded pretty realistic and certainly provides a no-holds-barred look at ancient warfare.
Aside from a lot of bloodshed, torture and sacrifice, there is plenty of cursing — as to be expected by a bunch of soldiers fighting for their lives. Something to bear in mind if you’re sensitive to such things.
All-in-all an entertaining read, in large part due to some interesting characters. None more so than Tullus, the protagonist. Other characters get rounded out as well, providing a ground-level look through Roman society that is usually shown only from the higher echelons.
David Rintoul does a good job reading the work, but there were a few occasions when I lost track of who from the myriad cast was talking due to a lack of distinction.
If you’re a fan of Rome or of battle sagas, this should keep you entertained.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: Eagles of Rome
GhostmanBuy NowBuy Now
It’s been a while since I’ve read a contemporary thriller, partly because every back cover I read sounded so cliched. That accusation can’t be leveled at this book.
Following our protagonist, a ‘ghostman’ — which is to say a chameleon who can change his appearance and body language to take on different personalities — we follow him as he’s dropped into Atlantic City to clean up a robbery gone wrong.
There’s a ticking clock driving the plot forward, which means we rarely stop or rest at all, let alone for long. The brutal action barrels along at breakneck speed.
Is it a classic? No, but it’s a solid thriller that is different enough to be good popcorn entertainment. The description of “page turner” certainly applies — I kept sneaking back to it whenever I had a few minutes.
The ending is a little soft, compared to the events leading up to it, but if you’re looking for a quick, engaging read, I think you’ll find this does the job.
Total RecallBuy NowBuy Now
Very few people can’t have heard of Arnie, the body builder turned actor turned governor. Not so many know how he’s achieved the things he’s done, and that is what this book lays out.
Schwarzenegger tells his life story, starting from his early days in an Austrian village that had no running water through to his super-stardom and on to his move into politics. He’s met with world leaders, spoken at the United Nations, made a fortune in real estate, earned a business degree and co-created a chain of restaurants.
He’s not shy about stating his accomplishments; from winning a record number of titles, moving body building out of the shadows, creating a business empire, becoming a box office star and successfully running for office.
Something he doesn’t appear to give any credit to is the timing of his birth. It may have been in a year of famine, not long after the end of WWII, but that makes him a baby boomer — a generation that experienced unprecedented economic growth that had little to do with talent. That said, there are few who can rival his climb.
He comes across as pretty candid too, unafraid to show where he made mistakes whilte standing behind his opinions. He dedicates a chapter to his much-publicised infidelity, for example. There are a few times where his views skirt the edge of being offensive too, although he doesn’t seem to realise it.
Overall, it’s an entertaining read from a star who appears to be a genuine and interesting guy who is fascinated by a range of subjects, great at many things, yet aware of his fallibilities and shortcomings. You don’t need to be a fan to enjoy it.
Abuse of PowerBuy NowBuy Now
I can count the number of books I haven’t finished on one hand. This is among them.
I didn’t know anything about this book before borrowing it, I went off the description.
It quickly became clear that this is a thinly-veiled Republican wet dream. The protagonist is an unapologetic alpha-male, a throwback, and it wasn’t long before we’d hit my limit of flag waving and chest pounding (I tried not to judge too early but by chapter 6 enough was enough).
If you’re saying or showing racist and sexist things, even if you’re claiming otherwise, they’re still offensive.
Do yourself a favour and avoid it.
Cold FallBuy NowBuy Now
I should start by saying that I listened to the abridged version, which didn’t do this any favours (it doesn’t any book). It did mean this was mercifully short though.
I was assuming this would be a thriller in the vein of the original Bond novels, where we delve into the world of super-villains and follow our hero across continents, visiting exotic locales and decadent venues.
Not so here. We do move around a lot, in fact it’s more like a pinball machine as we bounce from place to place. This is certainly not helped by the abridging. Characters are, likewise, introduced and thrown away at breakneck speed.
The story itself is weak, disorganised (we jump forward several years at one point) and populated with cardboard cut-outs. The women exist in large part of throw themselves at Bond. I’ve no idea why though, as he appears to be a bumbling incompetent.
He doesn’t fight, he doesn’t investigate. In fact, the whole story seems to progress through Bond’s historical connections to various people (largely old flames).
It’s read by Christopher Cazenove in a ridiculously clipped accent and many of the voices are so similar I had difficulty distinguishing one character from the next in several interchanges. There was also a persistent background hum.
I’m not sure when this was originally released (early 90s at a guess, before mobile phones were commonplace certainly) but it feels so dated. If any evidence were needed that the Bond franchise required freshening up, this is it.
The Wise Man’s FearBuy NowBuy Now
I bought this because I found myself thinking about Kvothe long after finishing the first book. I wondered where his journey went and was eager to re-enter that world.
The good news is you get to spend a lot of time there, as this is a substantial work. For all that, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of development along the underlying narrative. We see the main character’s early years in The Name of the Wind and we know where he gets to (as he is dictating his life story years later), but this book doesn’t get him much further along that path.
I really enjoyed the sections based at the university, but much of the book is taken up with Kvothe travelling to other places. These adventures add little to the overall story or his personal development and seem to serve only to add backstory to his legend. There are hundreds of pages that could have been removed and we’d have been none the worse (perhaps they pay back in book three, but we’re still waiting to find out).
The other thing I have issue with is the constant hurdle-jumping. I get that drama comes from conflict and that your main character can’t have a narrative that is plain sailing as it would be boring, but this seems to go to the other extreme.
There’s rarely a span of pages where we get smooth running before yet more trials are thrown at Kvothe. It’s like he’s on a treadmill and the author is constantly throwing objects into his path. It becomes tiresome, as you’re constantly lurching from one calamity to the next. Only right at the end do things finally settle down.
That said, it’s a wonderfully drawn book. It does rely on character stereotypes for a number of the smaller roles, a few cliches, but there’s plenty of new and interesting scenarios populated by rounded or surprising characters to keep it going, even if it does get mired in a few places.
This is a long audiobook, running over 42 hours. It’s well produced and wonderfully read by Rupert Degas, who does an excellent job bringing the characters to life.
I suspect the final book in the trilogy will be a big one because it has so much ground to cover, plus it’s taken Rothfuss going on for seven years to write (to date). There were enough good things in here that I’ll certainly look it out though.
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle
A Wizard of EarthseaBuy NowBuy Now
Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow would be the perfect way to describe this story. At times it seems to drag on despite its short length, only to explode into a cacophony of action. It’s a short book (my version finished at 201 pages), which was one of the reasons I picked it from my ‘to read’ pile, but it gripped me enough that I chomped through it much faster than usual.
Apparently this is a fantasy aimed at children, or at least young adults, but I didn’t read it as such. The themes, while centered around coming of age, are far wider and darker than those you would encounter in a typical children’s book. So don’t let that put you off.
At the start of the story I confess I was bit a dubious. An unnaturally gifted, egotistic boy with magic powers. It sounded pretty cliched, but it turns into something else and a character who you’d normally be encouraged to loath soon has you entranced.
One criticism is that the ending is one of the slow beats. After such a long build up the story just seems to fizzle out. Still an enjoyable read and I’ll look out some of the other titles in the series. The masterful world building, if nothing else, will make you want to explore more of Earthsea.
Series: Earthsea Cycle
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of LessBuy NowBuy Now
I think many of us feel we’re going a hundred miles-an-hour trying to do a million things, but still don’t seem to achieve what we want. This book promises to help empower you to focus on the essential items.
It’s packed with good examples, both from the author and people he has encountered. I certainly got some ideas and clarifications.
Many people, myself included, are probably doing some of the practices outlined in the book. Either intentionally or through necessity.
Ironically it took me a while to get through this because I prioritised some things that were more important to me at the time. I also found I had to re-read sections as I’d tuned out while thinking about how I could apply the suggestions to my daily life.
To be honest, nothing in the book is particularly revolutionary. In fact, you could sum it up in a few bullet-points:
- Don’t take on too much — learn to say no
- Set aside time to summarise all the things you need/want to do
- Only do the things that will have the most impact (on your life or the world), drop the rest
- Don’t forget to carve out time to think
- Make sure to enjoy down time in order to recharge
The benefit of the book is it drives home why you need to do these things.
Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the UniverseBuy NowBuy Now
Written by a former astronaut, the book follows Massimino’s journey to reach his ultimate goal: space.
It was far from a straightforward journey, but ‘Mass’ is a pretty straightforward guy and he likes to tell it as it is, warts and all — which is great for getting an understanding on what it takes to become an astronaut.
Having said that, and despite the constant claims that he’s an average Joe, someone who earns a Masters degree and a PhD from MIT clearly isn’t average. Mike is clearly an extraordinary guy. Even for him this wasn’t an easy journey though — he had to work hard and dedicate his like to making his dream come true.
Something that doesn’t get mentioned is how much his family scarified to help him. He drags them all over the country in pursuit of his goal — reading between the lines, it sounds like another example of a wife giving up any aspirations she had in order to support her husband.
Massimino was selected as an ‘as-can’ (astronaut candidate) in ’96, which means he was present for a lot of the big events and changes that took place within NASA. It’s interesting to see the view of these from inside. His story also highlights what a dangerous a career it still is — despite how ‘routine’ we think spaceflight is.
In the end the book just seemed to go on too long. We get bogged down in the details and the administration, plus it starts to feel repetitive.
It’s read by the author, who does a good job, especially conveying his excitement and enthusiasm for his subject — space and himself.
Probably one for true space nuts only.
The GameshouseBuy NowBuy Now
This was one of those fortunate finds. It was on an offer and I wanted to find three books to take advantage of it. The blurb for this one sounded interesting.
Actually this is three shorter books rolled into one. It consists of The Serpent, The Thief and The Master.
The first follows a woman in seventeenth century Venice as she plays a game to elect a ruler. The second is about a Frenchman playing hide and seek across 1930s Thailand. The last concerns an old player challenging the owner of The Gameshouse.
It’s a very novel idea, and tickled the part of me that suspects there’s a game behind the game — one that only a few people know is being played yet encompasses the planet. An idea I think appeals to many.
All of the stories have great characters, wonderfully rendered by Peter Kenny. Some appear so briefly they are stereotypes but lovable ones. The backgrounds are wonderful in their detail as well, especially well drawn was Thailand (to someone who hasn’t been).
The first two stories really chimed with me and I was drawn back to them, but the third — by far the most ambitious in scope — didn’t work as well; in part because so much is squeezed into something of short story length. The plot runs as if on fast-forward, with ever-more over-the-top set pieces and sacrifices. The humanity of it was lost.
As I say, narrator Peter Kenny does a great job of breathing life into the characters. One of the better readers I have listened to.
There’s a great concept underlying all of the stories, and plenty of room to explore innumerable paths within the universe, so I would be interested to see what else could be done.
Das RebootBuy NowBuy Now
Reading the synopsis, what I was expecting was a chronological run-through of the steps that led to the Germans winning the World Cup in 2014.
The steps are probably covered, but the book’s format means it’s hard to pick them out. We jump around the timeline so often I had difficulty keeping track of where we were. Added to that is a lack of detail about much of what was done.
This is intermingled with quotes of criticism from former football greats and newspapers that, while giving context and showing what the agents of change were up against, don’t really add anything.
Large swathes of the book are taken up with blow-by-blow accounts of various matches. Football isn’t enthralling in the form of the written word. I get the impression these were added to help bulk the book up, though some lessons are pulled out of particular plays.
There are some great quotes from the players who took part in the tournaments discussed, which offer some insights about how they felt and how various decisions impacted them, though with little tactical detail.
From what I gleaned:
- It started many years prior with a push to get more professional coaches at grassroots level. This enabled them to find a larger pool of talent to feed into the clubs and to develop players in the provinces.
- The German FA encouraged the clubs to overhaul their youth policy and build academies, while setting rules on the number of international players within them. This helped develop a young talent pool that had been trained the same way.
- They focused on the detail, whether it was improving fitness, set pieces, tactics, hotels, mental conditioning — anything that they thought could give them an edge, nothing was too small.
- Technology was used to help review performance and prepare players, as well as engaging them in tactics.
- Removing the dogma around the importance of ‘great players’ and instead focusing on a great team. Team spirit also came up several times. Not that key players and personalities didn’t prove important.
- Dropping old ideas like sweepers and a defense-first mentality, as well as being flexible about striking options.
- Luck — personnel changes, often enforced, and last-minute tactical decisions proved successful but could have destroyed them.
There may have been others, certainly there was some interesting technology mentioned that I hadn’t seen or heard of before, but which gets only a few paragraphs. It was hard to pull much else out though.
This book needs a good edit to re-order it. Starting with either the appointment of Klinsmann — who seems to have spearheaded some of the changes — or perhaps the win in Brazil, before returning to the years when unsung heroes lobbied the German FA for more grassroots coaching.
Charlie Anson does a good job narrating, even if the pronunciation of some names is a little odd to my (English) ears.
Not a bad book, but chaotically organised.
What Should We Be Worried About?Buy NowBuy Now
I started this book in November of last year. The fact that it took me nine months to read isn’t due to the length, but because I got so bored I put it down and went off to read other things. I may not have picked it up again but I devised a strategy to get me over the line.
In the end, I got this finished by looking at the titles and reading a few words of the remaining essays and listing the ones I felt were worthy of my time. I cut roughly 200 pages to about 54. That’s the sort of editing Brockman should have done.
Some essays were obviously a waste of time. Take the entry from Dave Winer, which is an entire 60 words in length. Why was it even included? And this is far from the only pointless entry.
What I was expecting, from the title and the description, was informed pieces by leading experts who were trying to highlight some of the concerns that give them sleepless nights. I was expecting pieces on climate change, AI, water shortages, food wars, nanotechnology, antibiotic resistance and a bunch of things I’d never even considered (declining R&D spending, for example).
That’s not what this book is though. Sure, there are some of those things, but largely it appears to have given the authors a forum to express whatever bugbear they happen to have been thinking about at the time. There’s a moving one about breast cancer, by a woman who is suffering from it, that simply bemoans a lack of progress in two decades.
There are essays on our understanding of consciousness, the teenage brain, the ‘loss of lust,’ the ‘homogenization of the human experience,’ living without the internet for a couple of weeks and stress. These are hardly potential civilisation enders, or likely to affect the entire population.
Even those that did actually fit the book’s description were pretty pointless as there’s no space to go into any depth. The format would have been better served by cutting the ideas down to a dozen and exploring them in more detail.
So, if what you’re interested in is learning more about the ‘hidden threats’ we face, this is not the book for you. If you’re interested in a soapbox where random people tell you about their current project (many of which don’t seem to warrant study) then you’re in luck.
And on That BombshellBuy NowBuy Now
I, like many, was a fan of Top Gear. So a book that promises to take you “inside the madness and genius” of the programme was naturally of interest, especially if it was funny too (and how could it not be?).
The author was there before Andy Wilman took over as producer and the ‘new’ Top Gear was born, so has some insight into the whole affair from start to end. The chapters that largely flow chronologically through the series, but with the occasional step out to cover a specific topic (like The Stig, for example).
All well and good, punchy and amusing if not belly-laugh funny. I certainly had a few chuckles. What it lacked was a great deal of depth. You get the feeling the author didn’t want to reveal too much for fear of accusations he ‘sold out’ the family, although this may equally have been due to rushing to get this out while the headlines were still fresh.
The finish is a little brusque, we go from ‘all things swimming along’ to ‘a bad year’, to ‘it’s over, there’s not much to say.’ He then adds ‘by the way, I got a job on their new show.’
It does reaffirm what fans of the show hoped — that the three presenters are basically the same in real life and that the whole thing was as much fun to produce as it was to watch (if much harder work). It’s like discussing all your fondest memories of the show with more dedicated fan who has a better memory.
You forget how long the show ran for (22 series over 13 years!) and that it stumbled a bit in the early days (James May didn’t join until the second series). It became such a staple and changed car shows so much that you don’t remember what a revolution it was.
A good, if wistful, look back at the childish antics that often wrought entertainment gold.
ShiftBuy NowBuy Now
I like the author of this series a lot, which was what prompted me to listen to and persist through the second of his trilogy, which started with Wool.
I’d found the first book a little underwhelming after all the hype, so the remaining books in the trilogy weren’t exactly something I had been drawn to. When I saw it available in my local library I thought I’d give it another chance though.
Originally released in parts, this consists of several stories, some of which share characters with each other and the previous book, but which don’t exactly intertwine. One is a prequel to the trilogy, the other two run parallel.
You can’t argue that the books aren’t well written and that the concepts aren’t pretty novel; a whole society ensconced underground in 50 silos, largely unaware of one another, entombed to provide a future for humanity.
The problem I found was one of empathy. I just didn’t connect with the characters or their stories. It was a well-told tale but it largely washed over me. I could have quit at any time and not missed it, in fact I nearly did on a few occasions. It certainly wasn’t a book I rushed back to, eager to continue.
If anything I was left more apathetic by this one than the original. Great ideas, but like life in the silos, the narrative just seemed to keep plodding along without any real purpose.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Silo Saga
The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never MadeBuy NowBuy Now
This is a look behind the Hollywood curtain to see how a movie makes it to the screen, or doesn’t. Most, in part because of the large amounts of money involved, go through long and arduous development processes where stars, directors and other talent come and go. This book focuses on sci-fi movies that didn’t see the light of day.
I don’t wish to be picky, but the title is inaccurate. Most of the films covered, which include Dune, Alien 3, Star Trek, Thunderbirds and John Carter of Mars, did actually get made. What we’re really talking about here are versions of those films that could have been made.
The production team behind many of the films changed numerous times and, it’s generally agreed, there were combinations attached at some point that could have resulted in great movies, or not, because we’ll never know.
In the case of Thunderbirds, practically any version bar the one that got released would have been an improvement, but would Nicholas Cage starring in Superman Lives and directed by Tim Burton have worked? I’m not so sure. And if, like me, you love David Lynch’s Dune, you can’t imagine Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version being an improvement.
The book also documents plenty of examples where you thank the stars that certain versions never saw the light of day and wonder what on Earth everyone involved was thinking. Thankfully saner heads (or studio politics) prevailed.
It’s a great, enthralling look at the Hollywood machine. Not only that, but it details a fair bit of backstory as well, outlining the plots of the novels discussed or the timeline for the comics that provided the source material.
One criticism is that it gets bogged down in that on occasion. The chapter on Star Trek, for instance, doesn’t look at a specific movie but goes through the development process right up to the J. J. Abrams reboot. The chapter on the The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was equally protracted, as were some others.
There’s some overlap with Hughes’ other work, Tales from Development Hell, and it appears I had similar criticism for that. There was enough new stuff to make this worth it though.
Even if you’re don’t love movies, as I do, this is still an enjoyable and fascinating telling of the stories behind what ends up on screen — some of which are better than the finished article.
The Ascent Of Rum DoodleBuy NowBuy Now
At 40,000-and-a-half-feet, Rum Doodle is the highest peak in the world and a team of experienced climbers is assembled at the request of Sir Hugeley Havering with the aim of reaching the summit. The story of their expedition, told by the team’s leader, is what forms the basis of the book.
As you can tell, this is a parody, mocking the derring-do and heroic sacrifice journaled in many expedition diaries, especially in the early part of the twentieth century.
The book apparently took inspiration from a real-life account called The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Bill Tilman. Rum Doodle isn’t looking so ridiculous a name when you know that.
Populated by a fantastic cast, who are at once distilled to a single trait — the route finder who is perpetually lost, the physician who is always ill — and then expanded with strange back stories about their fiances, or lack of them.
It’s not a long book, but it’s also a bit of a one trick pony and, at times, it feels like a sketch that has been stretched too far. Various obstacles and sub-plots are thrown in to try and bolster the basic premise.
The foreword by Bill Bryson is practically worth the price of admission. Terry Wale does a fine job reading it. The only odd thing is the producer didn’t bother to remove the references to ‘end of CD x’ from the MP3 version, where they have no meaning.
I stumbled across this in my local library, quite by accident, having never heard of it before. I agree with Bryson — it deserves a wider audience.
If you decide to read it I’m sure that you will agree that “team spirit remains first-rate and the porters are splendid.”
Zero DayBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve been looking for a good cyber-crime story. I’m still looking.
Russinovich works in the computing world and has been involved in investigating or uncovering things like rootkits — something that comes up repeatedly in the novel. I was therefore expecting plenty of technical details, cat-and-mouse games in the command line, brilliant minds unraveling secrets.
Actually, there’s none of that. Instead you get a fairly simple thriller story translated into layman’s terms. That you could live with, except for it’s other failings.
Although released in 2011, it feels like a novel from a bygone age. The impossibly good-looking protagonists are surrounded by an array of cardboard cut-out characters, both physically and emotionally. Women are not only relegated to minor roles but objectified and I can’t think of a character who wasn’t a paper-thin stereotype.
What technical details we do get are laughably overblown, with everything from an airliner, a nuclear power station, an oil tanker and air traffic control being infected, albeit by a string of different viruses. Go read up on Stuxnet and you’ll see how hard it is to attack just one industrial device, nevermind a whole range.
Ironically, as I was listening to this a large malware attack hit a number of countries, causing chaos in UK hospitals. Aside from some cancelled operations and a few ransom payments, not much else happened though.
Johnny Heller does an adequate job reading it, but he’s not helped by the adaptation. The book includes print-outs of code and email headers, which means you end up listening to him laboriously read out a series of random letters and numbers, or repeating to and from addresses (“from email@example.com, to firstname.lastname@example.org”) — hardly thrilling listening.
Even if you like thrillers this is one to skip.
Fahrenheit 451Buy NowBuy Now
This is one of those classics that you’re supposed to read, a dystopian vision of the future that sits in the pantheon containing 1984, Brave New World and Slaughterhouse 5. It certainly contains a bleak vision of the future.
Originally published in 1953, it has predictions of the future that seem both insightful and naive. He’s guessed at some of the technology very well, but completely missed the mark elsewhere, which is to be expected. The culture of the 1950s (well, much of the 20th century) remains too, with the women staying at home while the men go off to work. Something that rankles modern sensibilities.
It shows a future where books — the source of unhappiness and discontent — are outlawed and firemen no longer put out fires, but guard against the written word by burning any that are found.
The main motifs seem to hint at state control, of a docile, unthinking populace that are happy to be distracted with simple entertainments and treat the occasional burning of their neighbours like Romans visiting the Colosseum. The aim seems to be to slap the reader and try and wake them from their mental slumber.
I found the narrative a bit disturbing. It started well enough and I thought we’d settle into an exploratory current as our protagonist, Guy Montag, has his eyes opened by the young girl who lives next door, the one who sees the world differently. That wasn’t the case though and for the rest of the story we lurched along in an internal crisis, which I found frustrating.
Many of the themes ring true today, from the supposed loss of ‘longform’ to the disappearing newspapers to the vapid TV shows. (I happened to have read a story about a wave of teenage joyriders while listening to this.) Plus the distrust of those in power. The faceless bureaucrats. I suspect that’s why it’s so popular a book — because the themes are universal and each generation has their own combustion point. Maybe when you’ve been through a cycle the impact is lessened.
There seems to be a lot of pontificating too. Both from the ‘bad’ side, in the form of Montag’s boss, but also the ‘good.’ All of it sounded like some spiritual guru mouthing off with dime-store philosophy, but lacked any substance. Clever words thrown together with no meaning.
Although book burning has a precedence in history, I think part of my reaction came down to a disbelief any such thing could ever happen, that there are far too many people too in love with books. Making the events outlines far too outlandish.
From a technical stand point, my copy was read by Stephen Hoye, who does a very good job with a slightly mesmeric voice.
The book is highly lauded, so maybe I’m missing something. I was wary of criticising it, but I have to call it as I see it. I found it hard to get through and without a core I could cling to.
CryptonomiconBuy NowBuy Now
This took me a while to get through, partly because it was a library loaner and I kept losing the renewal, forcing me to go read something else until whoever reserved it realised what they had and returned it (usually only a couple of days).
The other reason is because this is a monster. The paperback runs nearly a thousand pages, while the audiobook is about 43 hours long. So it takes some commitment to finish it.
What kept me going was a vague hope that, at some point, some action was going to appear. It didn’t, and in fact the story finished like a damp squib. I was hoping for some big comeuppance, some grand payoff. Neither was delivered.
Stephenson’s research was obviously detailed, with a thorough look at code breaking during the WWII, the Nazi’s secret gold shipments and diversionary tactics employed by the secret services. Some of the impact may have been lost as these revelations have subsequently found their way into the mainstream (certainly the role of places like Bletchley Park).
That does give us endless hours of tedium though. Listening to someone read out lines of code for several minutes is no fun. Stephenson is known for the technical detail, so his audience may lap up the dives into number theory, but they don’t add much to the plot.
Neither do the long passages explaining how the protagonist prepares and eats his breakfast cereal, the endless discourse on how masturbation is required to relieve tension for a clearer mind and lustful contemplation about various objects of affection. None help move the story forward. All could have been dropped or shortened to help speed it up and reduce the word count.
There’s also some language that, I assume, was designed to fit in with the times, but is offensive to modern sensibilities.
There are also some well-rounded characters though, who are engaging and witty. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call them realistic, but they’re more than cardboard cut-outs, mostly. It’s also a heroic WWII book that shows how those other than front-line troops helped the effort.
It’s an interesting enough story, I can see why the critics liked it, but you feel that all the cool stuff is going on below the surface and we never break through to it. Which left me a bit frustrated.
Masters of DoomBuy NowBuy Now
Only a handful of computer games have broken out of the gamer community and into the collective consciousness. I think it’s fair to count Doom among them. It was created, in no small part, by the two Johns of Id Software.
Although there’s a huge cast of characters, Masters of Doom focuses on these two as it charts their personal and collective stories, a narrative intertwined with the rise of the computer games industry as it moved from coloured blocks to environments rendered in 3D.
The book’s quite light on technical detail, which isn’t a bad thing, instead focusing on the chaos, outlandish-prank-filled, pizza-powered, caffeine-fueled journey from bedroom coders to multimillionaires that the two industry titans followed.
At times it veers towards Wolf of Wall Street territory in terms of insanity, albeit with less drugs, sex and booze. Young guys earning big bucks is a recipe for over-the-top antics it seems. Even the stoic Carmack gets in on the act with a love of Ferraris that seems out of character.
To a lesser extent it’s a handbook for tech businesses and an insight into the modern startup world, with Id operating a hacker house long before the term existed. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway: the tech may change but the path to success is paved by crazed devotees working long hours on things they love.
Although the small software shop still exists, and still works, most big titles now are long, costly affairs that employ a team of people more akin to a Hollywood production. It’s far removed from those early days. This book shows how, when an industry is still young, individuals can cast big shadows by forging a path through the unknown.
While it delivers on the promise of journaling the days up to even the later versions of Doom and Quake, the story kind of fizzles out without an ending. The two protagonists are still working (this was written in 2003), let alone still alive. Some sort of interview with them, looking back, might have been a fitting conclusion.
That said, it’s a fascinating look at a formative time for an industry that still sails under the radar, but which is the highest grossing entertainment sector in the world.
The Lock ArtistBuy NowBuy Now
I picked this up while I was waiting for some computer updates to install and was quickly hooked. I was soon finding time to read it whenever I could. Which is obviously a good sign.
It tells the story of a boy who experiences a hugely traumatic event that leaves him speechless, literally. Life doesn’t get much easier though and it’s followed by a pretty grim existence with limited choices.
That’s a good way to build empathy and there’s certainly no shortage of obstacles and setbacks for our protagonist to overcome. The dual threads of the narrative, which cover two different time periods, are weaved nicely to keep you reading, showing you just enough to keep you hooked before switching away.
If I had a criticism it would be with the ending, which seems somewhat abrupt. There’s a bit of build up, some tension, and then it’s over in a flash. I thought it could do with a bit more punch.
That said, it was still a good read, packed with intriguing characters (it helps when your protagonist is a mute safe-cracker — not too many of those in literature, or anywhere). While the plot is fairly straightforward, it’s engaging enough and the writing draws you in so you root for the outcome, which makes it satisfying.
Power SurgeBuy NowBuy Now
I persevered with this, hoping something would start to happen, hoping the paper thin caricatures and the ancient stereotypes of male and female roles in Washington would at least have some juicy action in it. It dragged on and on and nothing materialised, so I decided life was too short for such tripe and moved on.
I haven’t quit on many books, but this really was dire.
Napoleon the GreatBuy NowBuy Now
Being British, I tend to have been presented with the view that Napoleon was an upstart dictator with a lust for power and the greed to try and conquer Europe, including this sceptred isle. But while he was an acclaimed general, he was no match for Wellington.
For all that, I have a somewhat greater admiration for Napoleon as man who clearly wasn’t just a gifted general but a bold statesmen, a forward-looking leader and lover of his country.
Drawing on over thirty thousand letters that Napoleon wrote over the course of his lifetime, this book tries to provide an insight into the man and how he lived. The portrait it paints is not that of a tyrant, nor a genius, but of a very rounded individual who read widely, had many interests and concerns, and who was as flawed as any other.
I learnt a great many things I hadn’t known before, surprising for such a well-known historical figure, who is most infamous for a few moments from a lifetime that was packed with achievements. A lifetime that only lasted 51 years. Yet not only did he rise in the military ranks and take the throne of France, but he also had influence in domestic affairs and indeed across Europe.
For all the fascinating detail, the pacing of this book seems odd at times. Spending great lengths on minutiae while speeding through entire battles or campaigns. I also struggled to understand quite what was so brilliant about some of his maneuvers, meaning his obvious failures — which need little explaining — became more pronounced.
It took me a long time to get through this, not because it was bad, but because it’s gargantuan. The book runs to nearly 1,000 pages. The audiobook, therefore, has a running time in excess of 37 hours.
It is read perfectly well by Stephen Thorne, who suits the material, but it’s the first audiobook where I recall hearing breaths and sniffles.
A very detailed look at a man who has cast a long shadow over Europe, with his influence still felt to this day. If you’re after a fascinating incite into one of history’s truly great protagonists, this could be it.
Leviathan WakesBuy NowBuy Now
On the one hand a space opera with big scope, but unlike a pan-universe narrative it focuses on our solar system and brings it back to a more human scale.
The story is told through two protagonists, and the view point flips between them in alternating chapters.
I have to say this hooked me, to the point that I was listening to it whenever I could. I eschewed my usual morning routine of watching/listening to the news in order to squeeze in more time to listen.
My enthusiasm waned as we approached the three-quarter mark though. The initial mystery and fast pace are lost and while what remains is perfectly okay, it didn’t hold the same allure for me.
I was prepared to overlook the pretty thin and stereotyped characterisation, as well as some of the other generic elements. I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid them all. There are some new ideas too — a new take — arguably a more realistic one, on where humanity is headed. Most of it was background to the events anyway.
I wasn’t too sure about narrator Jefferson Mays initially, but he grew on me and worked out well enough.
The breathless pacing early on, combined with the mystery give it junkie-esque appeal. Once past this it didn’t reach the same addictive heights.
Genre: Science Fiction
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective AgencyBuy NowBuy Now
Being a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it was natural to pick up the Dirk Gently series. It’s recognisably Adams, but focuses on subject matter less relating to space travel. There is an element of time travel though.
It’s a bit of an odd book, coming in at under 300 pages it’s pretty short, yet the titular character doesn’t make an appearance until mid-way through. The first half presents us with a series of introductions to seemingly disconnected characters performing actions that appear to have nothing to do with the plot.
That is, of course, an example of ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things’ on which Dirk Gently’s investigative services are based and they are slowly woven together.
It’s hard to criticise someone of Adam’s caliber, but the pacing of the book felt a little off to me. It seems to take a long time to get going, with random threads popping up without introduction, making it quite confusing (on top of the usual asides expected in Adams’ work). Then, as things start moving, it gathers immense pace.
The ending also seems to fizzle out. The entire of humanity is on the line yet it’s handled without any fanfare and a quick summary. It’s like he was told he only had a set number of pages and, realising he had nearly reached it, suddenly had to tie it all up.
That said, it is filled with the bizarre, slightly insane, yet utterly brilliant ideas which the author is best-known for. On the one hand they make you chuckle, and yet there also seems to be some sort of truth at their core. The tone makes the work sound like satire of its genre, yet the author clearly loves it.
Not for everyone I’m sure, but if you enjoy the zany then it won’t disappoint.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Dirk Gently
The New Confessions of an Economic Hit ManBuy NowBuy Now
The original Confessions was released in 2004. It largely told the story of the author’s time as an Economic Hit Man (EHM) where he had a hand in deals to use loans, aid and bribes to control various countries and their leaders.
At the time it was released it was unlikely to be particularly revelatory, given how much of these secret worlds had been exposed Most of the author’s own exploits date back to the 1970s, with him having left the ‘trade’ in the 1980s. Had he written and released the book at that point it might have made more of a splash. As it is, it’s a watered down conscious pleaser.
As he didn’t, there’s very little to surprise and what there is has scant evidence to back it up. Most of the stories go into almost no detail.
Slowly ideas of a more existential nature start to appear — well after he’s made plenty of money I would add, if I were of a cynical mind — and as talk of a ‘life economy’ takes over it starts to sound more like a spiritual guide than an economics discussion.
It’s read nicely enough by Tom Taylorson, allowing for the usual American pronounciations. His twang is a little more cowboy than perhaps the material warrants but not an issue. I’m not sure the sections at the end where things the reader could do and lists of publications are read out are necessary, in the audiobook at least. The last one-two hours is a waste of time.
For me, the book didn’t add anything you wouldn’t know already if you’d read a paper or dug into the news at any point in the last couple of decades. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, just that there are better insights out there.
Breaking the Chains of GravityBuy NowBuy Now
Most of us are familiar with the fact that NASA put a man on the moon in 1969. It was the pinnacle of spaceflight and one that hasn’t (yet) been surpassed. But how did they get to that point? For that you have to go back to Germany in the 1930s. That’s where this book starts and it runs up to NASA’s inception.
I take umbrage at the sub-title: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA. Well, that’s not true, because there’s almost nothing about the Soviet developments bar scant mention of their successful launches. There’s no mention of Tsiolkovsky either, or that American Robert Goddard is credited with launching the first liquid-fueled rocket, long before the Germans did. They’re just some of many omissions.
That aside, we get a narrative that largely follows Wernher von Braun’s career with the occasional aside to pick up other people or advances. It’s interesting enough, especially seeing how many times programmes came close to being cancelled and how the different military branches competed with one another (nothing changes).
It’s quite a dry sequence though and seems to peter out rather than finish with a bang, if you’ll forgive the pun.
It’s read perfectly well by Laurence Bouvard, but she can’t do much to overcome what amounts to a timeline of inane facts.
Accurate it may be and it was quite interesting to see how all the strands pulled together to form the space agency, but it feels incomplete and lacks human interest.
WEBuy NowBuy Now
Set almost exclusively in a remote outpost, a place inhabited by just four humans now the latest crew member has arrived, having made a journey that took him eight years. It’s not explicitly stated, but I assumed the moon they were on was Titan.
Aside from leaving his family behind, Paul Munro has had to endure a lot of physical changes to cope with the lighter gravity of his new home. It’s a one-way trip because he could never survive a return to Earth.
His biggest sacrifice was giving up the World Ear, a device that connected him to the global network 24/7 and through which much of his life flowed.
Paul has been sent to work out why some transmissions from the station to Earth are being corrupted. The story follows the investigation as it unfolds. It’s essentially a mystery story, set in an usual location.
This isn’t a long book, at about 300 pages, so it’s quick to get through, which was nice when the tension started to ramp up and offered the hook of a page turner.
It ends rather abruptly, not unsatisfactorily so much, but there was more that could have been added and it would have expanded the tensions often shown between the crew and between the crew and Earth, which some of them believe is evil.
It’s far from perfect, with a lot of the story simply describing mechanical actions. Then there’s the stereotypes of the crew and the crotchety new arrival. The limited cast does focus the mind though and the extreme location provides both a character and an obstacle.
I think it’d make an interesting TV special, as you could boil it down to a reasonable run-time and emphasize the claustrophobia, there are times when the book seems to draw the story out just to increase word count. I enjoyed it though.
Genre: Science Fiction
The Name of the WindBuy NowBuy Now
I avoided this one for a while due to the description. The arrogant hero and his amazing deeds is what it sounded like, but that’s not the case. Sure there is some heroism, but most of that is luck and timing, although there’s some underlying talent.
Instead, this is the story of a man, told by that man. Now an innkeeper, Kvothe obviously has a history, mostly hinted at before slowly being revealed as his tells his tale to a chronicler. We’re not just talking the exciting or interesting parts either, there’s no skipping here. We go right back to the start, then through every year and every term. I’m not sure most of it is necessary to be honest or particularly helpful to the plot.
The fact that this is part one of three (third not yet completed), with the second act nearly twice the length of this already substantial tomb, suggests I’m right.
For all that, the story barrels along at quite a pace with something new only ever a few pages away. There are plenty of maddening moments though — when the narrative treads water or you think we’re getting out into a gallop only for Kvothe do something stupid. Many times it felt like two steps forward, one step back.
Yes, it’s packed with the cliches of the fallen hero trope, but it’s spun and woven well. Despite the word count, most of the ancillary characters rely on stereotypes and feel quite thin on reflection.
Praise goes to Rupert Degas too, who does an excellent job of narrating. He provides a nice range of voices for the characters while lending a steady authority.
Despite the advanced run time, I didn’t find myself willing it to end and I was slightly disappointed Kvothe wouldn’t be there the first time I picked up my headphones afterwards. A good sign for sure, but having seen the length of the next installment I’ll probably hold off a while before diving in again.
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle
To Hold the BridgeBuy NowBuy Now
I’m a big fan of Nix’s Old Kingdom series, but haven’t read any of his other works. This is sold on the back of that world but only contains one story relating to it, the rest are a series of unrelated, self-contained shorts.
As with any compilation, some are better than others. There’s plenty of fantasy, featuring everything from knights to vampires to Hellboy. There are even some science fiction stories too (John Carter gets a mention).
Truth be told, I was a little disappointed there weren’t more relating to the Old Kingdom, that’s what drew me to the book and what I was interested in.
The stories are all competently written, though some feel a little rushed. Some would make good full-length novels and many allude to larger narratives or backstories.
They’re just not all up to Old Kingdom levels for me. Some are a little cliche, some a bit bizarre. The ones featuring pre-existing characters are just odd.
To be fair, I’m not a massive short story fan, although I have read my share.
There are some solid stories here, and they’re interesting enough, but they left me unfulfilled. Part of that may have come down to my own expectations though.
How to Get RichBuy NowBuy Now
Felix Dennis was a poet and philanthropist, but more importantly — for this book at least — he was also the founder of Dennis Publishing, which grew from a single title into a behemoth that gave him an estimated net worth in the hundreds of millions.
There’s plenty of advice in this book, but unlike many of the other self-help books (that Dennis lambastes) it is also interspersed with stories from his own career and passing remarks about those of people he knows. This isn’t a sunny tale filled with triumph though, he readily explains his mistakes (as well as those of others) and is happy to bang-on about how many people — including some of his employees — are smarter than he is.
The book is a biography as much as a business advice manual, but it’s certainly not a hard set of rules that he guarantees will make you successful. It’s merely a rich man trying to distill what he believes are the reasons for his success.
As such, there’s very little empirical evidence and many of the conclusions are backed up by random anecdotes. That said, the author is obviously very well read (judging by the number of quotes and poems sprinkled throughout the book) and accustomed to self-reflection. It’s hard to argue with a man that has his track record.
Although the title is direct and much of the writing focuses on ‘getting rich’ (sometimes by any means, though always legally), he is also keen to point out that it’s not the way to happiness or the only way to live a great life.
While aimed at a specific audience, it provides an interesting look into a storied life, so it’s worth a read even if you have no interest in business.
SapiensBuy NowBuy Now
The subtitle describes this book perfectly: A brief history of humankind.
Starting before Sapiens (the scientific term for modern-day humans) it performs a whistle-stop tour of our history and even postulates what the future may hold for our species.
Topics covered include the rise to dominance by Sapiens over other human species, the birth of agriculture, cities and empires through to religion, language and our destruction of many of Earth’s other inhabitants.
Having read Guns, Germs and Steel, Civilization: The West and the Rest and Why Nations Fail I found a lot of parallels and plenty of overlaps, so if you’ve previously encountered those this may not provide as many insights as it will for some.
Still, it’s a very interesting, if understandably brief, history of the world that is plainly written and easy to engage with. I did find myself tuning out in several sections though and the weighting of some topics over others feels odd in places.
Well read by Derek Perkins who does a perfectly good job.
Any one of the chapters covered could have been a book in and of itself, so broad are the topics, so this is a case of dipping your toe, but a good way to cover a vast array of topics without getting bogged down and worth a read.
Start With WhyBuy NowBuy Now
This is one of those inspirational business books I’ve seen pop-up in a few places, so I took the plunge.
The concept is pretty simple: if you want a project (whether that be a business or something else) to succeed long term you need to have a reason; a core tenet that drives everything else.
The author shows that those businesses that only list a series of features in their adverts fail to connect to consumers and build a ‘cult’ of core believers who will help spread the word.
One of the companies that comes up throughout the book, unsurprisingly, is Apple. It’s not the only one, but seems to be the prime example. The problem I have is that I couldn’t articulate Apple’s ‘why’ when I tried to.
Sure they have adverts that encourage us to ‘think different’ but is that a why? They were led by a couple of counter-culture guys and offered an alternative to the mainstream, but is that a why? The famous advert suggested they would set you free, but is that a why?
Why do people buy Apple computers today? The reason, I would argue, is that they have a reputation for being easy to use for those who want their computers to ‘just work.’ Read Jobs’ biography and it states over and over that he saw himself as sitting at a point where humanities and technology meet. He wanted to make technology accessible to the masses (among other things).
That’s a why, but not one I’ve seen on any Apple advertising, which focuses on the design and engineering.
As such, I found this an interesting, thought-provoking read and there are certainly some good ideas in there. I can see how it could be used to motivate people, to focus minds and even help with recruitment. I can see how it would humanise a business and move the conversation with customers and prospects beyond the bottom line. But it fell a bit flat as the reason a business is successful.
Sinek himself reads the audio version, and does a good job. It seems to suffer the same fate as a few books I’ve listened to lately: random lines will repeat, so you get part of a sentence twice. Not often, but it’s jarring when it happens.
It’s not a very long book, so worth checking out, but not sure I buy this as ‘the answer.’ Apparently his TED talk (which can be found online) covers everything you need to know, but a lot faster.
AzincourtBuy NowBuy Now
I was amazed how fast I was drawn into this story and onto the side of Nick Hook, the protagonist. That in spite of his first act being being rather heinous.
Hook is an archer and it’s his journey that is used to guide us through the events leading up to and during the legendary battle at Agincourt. It’s a pretty grim tale of a grim time, when life seems to have been both harsh and short, yet undervalued.
As such, the events depicted are both brutal and shocking. From rape and murder to dysentery, the latter having killed more Englishmen than the French.
I’m not sure that the whole side plot about Hook’s long-running feud with the Perrill family adds anything particularly, other ways could have been found to get him to France.
It’s read very well by Damien Goodwin. The only weirdness, at least on the version I listened to, was that it had obviously been converted from a CD version and so it stopped to announce the start and end of a disc every now and again.
If you like historical fiction then this was an interesting read with some well-wrought characters (all of the archer’s names were taken from a list of those that were actually there). Cornwell obviously tries hard for historical accuracy too — there’s very little sign of chivalry — but as even scholars can’t agree on the details no one can say what it was really like.
A good read though, and of a standard you expect from Cornwell.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Genghis Khan: And the Making of the Modern WorldBuy NowBuy Now
In the West, mention of the Mongols conjures images of barbarians on horseback with bows and an empire that spanned the world. It doesn’t offer up much else though.
This book sets out to fill in the blanks with a history of Temujin’s (his actual name) rise to power and the history of not just his reign, but those of his descendants. It doesn’t cover them all (the last of his line reigned until 1920), but focuses on the ones following his demise.
It draws heavily on a text called The Secret History of the Mongols, written some time after Genghis died on behalf of the Mongol royal family.
What we learn is that Genghis instituted a meritocracy within his ranks (largely, though family were kept close too), that he constantly adapted his battle techniques by absorbing new technologies and skills from those he conquered (though the army did rely on many well-used philosophies time and again) and that he was a big innovator in general.
He was also a big supporter of trade, helping to secure and strengthen the Silk Road. Laws were put in place across his dominion and applied to everyone, high or low. He supported religious freedom, and both he and his descendants wanted to learn more about the religions they encountered, with many Mongols becoming Muslims and Christians, as well as Buddhists and Taoists.
He shared his spoils much more evenly than many rulers, created a vast postal and administrative system to support his empire and employed many craftsman and engineers (albeit often as slaves).
Through his descendants he influenced most of the known world, sparking advances in China, the Middle East and Europe (the Mongols who led China are even credited with starting the European Renaissance).
The book doesn’t shy away from the destruction wrought by the Mongols, though could be accused of glossing over it. There’s a suggestion that their barbarous reputation comes from Timur/Tamerlane, a later ruler known for his cruelty. It also implies he was no worse than any other ruler of his time. Genghis banned torture when it was the norm for many victors.
That said, the Mongols were not averse to laying waste to cities if they resisted. The book even mentions that when his brother was killed during a siege in Afghanistan his sister-in-law demanded the deaths of not just every man, woman and child, but all the cats and birds too.
If I had a criticism it would be that the book asserts all of the history as fact, with very little (if anything) in support of the claims. The primary source was written by a Mongolian so is bound to contain some whitewashing. It argues against some of the accounts recorded by Muslim and European scholars around that period.
The audio version is well read by Jonathan Davis, the only weird thing was the inclusion of an afterword that is actually the introduction in the written version and is out of place.
All in all, a very interesting and enlightening read. It shows how Genghis adopted many things that would later be claimed as the reasons for the rise to dominance of the West. It also shows he wasn’t just a great military leader, but an excellent administrator too.
100 Things You Will Never FindBuy NowBuy Now
This book covers everything from lost cities and hidden treasures to artworks and people that have vanished from history and will never turn up again.
Except that quite a few of them might. For every Harold Holt, Lord Lucan or Roanoke Colony there is a Beagle 2 (now believed found, and which almost certainly will be) or a sunken treasure that may yet be recovered. The inclusion of several items that are purely fiction is also debatable.
Some lost treasures, such as the Amber Room, get no mention whatsoever. I know there’s a limit to what could be included, but missing people are surely less interesting than immutable objects that must still exist.
There’s also a strong Western leaning to the list. There are some South American (although you’d argue linked to Western history) and Asian treasures mentioned, but far fewer of them. It’s hard to justify the inclusion of the formula for WD-40 and the Colonel’s secret recipe too, along with extinct species.
People have complained about the quality of self-published books, but this needed some more proof-reading. There are plenty of references to ‘see page xx’ where the ‘xx’ hasn’t been replaced with the actual page numbers. There are other issues that a cursory read-through would have picked up.
Not a bad book, overall, and nice to dip into, but not much more than you’d find online and the websites would likely have fewer typos.
A Short History of MythBuy NowBuy Now
I shouldn’t hold my negative view against it really, it was recommended and I didn’t do as much research into what this was as I should. By the title, I was expecting a run down of myths through the ages, where they came from and how they changed, even if at a high level.
This is actually an essay on the way myth has been used by humanity through the ages, largely tied to religion and spirituality. It seems especially keen to drive home points about how the stories in the bible weren’t designed to be read literally. Given the author’s pedigree and area of expertise that’s hardly surprising.
It’s pretty dense, very dry and hard to relate to. It certainly discusses some interesting, large and deep ideas, but not in an accessible way. It always intrigues me when people claim to know the thinking and motivations behind actions and events from several hundred, if not several thousand, years ago.
Calling this a book is stretching the definition a little. It runs to 155 pages, but it takes some serious padding to get it that far. It’s little more than a paper. That did turn out to be a bonus though.
RingworldBuy NowBuy Now
An alien recruits three fellow travellers, two human, to visit a newly discovered structure 200 light-years from Earth. The ringworld is vast, surrounding a star it has a surface area of roughly three million Earth-sized planets.
Approaching it cautiously, wary of the powerful race it must have taken to build it, they get shot down and crash land. The mixed crew must then find a way off.
Originally published in 1970, it’s interesting to compare the notion of future technologies with our view today. There are no computers mentioned, for example, although there are automatic systems. No autopilot either.
There’s mention of a character reading up on an event from a screen, but it sounds more like microfiche than the internet or an ebook. Yet many ideas are those we still pursue.
For all that it does pretty well and there isn’t anything too jarring, like flying cars or jetpacks, to throw you back into reality.
The book is far from hard sci-fi, written with a whimsy that will have you smiling at some of the ideas, passages and absurdities encountered. It verges on a comedy at times.
The exploration of the characters and the notion of luck fill much of the plot. It’s well written but the characters still didn’t engage me particularly and seem pigeon-holed by their traits.
That said, it was still an enjoyable listen.
Tom Parker does a very good job narrating and his voice seems to fit the story, and characters, well.
Genre: Classics, Science Fiction
100 Acts of Minor DissentBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve been a fan of Mark Thomas since discovering him on his short-lived TV series. He’s a person that irks many, but who we all need, now more than ever.
That’s because Mark isn’t like the rest of us, he’s not here for a quiet life. He doesn’t hear about a change to the law or a re-zoning of an area and grumble, he actively does something about it. Mark and his friends defend public liberty, as much as anything else, as it’s slowly being stripped away from us.
Along with the press — when it’s not being an arse — people like Mark stand up for the public interest and dedicate their lives to keeping politicians and corporations honest as they try to steamroller the rest of society.
To this end, the book covers one hundred things Mark (and friends) complete over the course of a year to try and fight against some of the injustices they encounter.
They vary wildly in quality. The three regarding porn magazines are essentially one and likely to impact almost no-one. Some of the others impacted policy and improved life for a lot of people. There are plenty that are hilarious though and many that are, dare I say it, right on the money.
How many caused real change is probably up for debate, but these were only minor acts let us not forget. If nothing else they serve to raise awareness.
Mark’s inventiveness guarantees the book is funny — how can a man dressed in a Dalmatian onesie pulling a salmon strapped to a skateboard not be? — but it also serves to highlight many global, national and local issues. Ones those in power obviously hoped we’d overlook or meekly accept.
It’s heartening to see how many people get involved, but I was also impressed by how many sympathetic police officers, security staff and managers he meets. The people of this small isle are still a force to be reckoned with, no matter what walk of life they inhabit.
Will this book change the world? Unlikely. Will it change your views? Maybe. Will it highlight the need for activists like Mark and his friends? Absolutely. And it’ll do it while making you chuckle, which is no bad thing.
Great North RoadBuy NowBuy Now
Hamilton is a master of enormous storylines, well-known for his space opera series. This standalone novel isn’t quite as grand in its scope, but its still very ambitious in the size, span and complexity of its plot. It’s not a small book either.
Although it’s populated by a vast array of characters, the book is divided into two interlinked threads. In one, a Newcastle detective is investigating the murder of a North — a clone from a vast family that owns a huge empire — while the second follows a released prisoner onto a distant world as part of an expedition to locate an alien species, one thought responsible for the murder.
That is to over-simplify the story as it’s formed of numerous strands with lots of people feeding both their current motivations and their past into every aspect of the book.
From a purely technical standpoint it’s quite an achievement simply tracking all the moving parts and knitting them together. There are times when I found it a little frustrating, when I was interested in one thread only to be thrown into another, but as they begin to pull together I was frantically hoping between them.
The whodunnit aspect kept me guessing and the constant reveals of each character’s past also provided new revelations, sometimes changing my views on them.
Although set in the future, the book has a nostalgic, wistful feel due in part to the number of flashbacks it contains, but also the ending. There’s a sentimentality to it despite the often cold, gruesome events taking place.
It does seem to try hard to please the audience though and provide that feel-good factor. It read more like a Hollywood movie in places, like it had an eye on the box office and couldn’t drag everyone down too far.
I’ve criticised some of Hamilton’s previous work for its unnecessarily detailed and poetic prose, often for things that have no bearing on the plot. There’s a few hints of that here, but the worst has been reined in.
Towards the end, as the various strands begin to coalesce and culminate, I couldn’t put it down. I found myself staying up later than I should have and carving out time to read it beyond my normal routine. Praise doesn’t come any higher.
This isn’t hard sci-fi as such, though there’s some technical stuff for those who want it, but rather a murder mystery intertwined with stories about family and duty. A read I very much enjoyed.
Genre: Science Fiction
ClarielBuy NowBuy Now
This is a prequel to the books of the Old Kingdom series (also known as the Abhorsen Chronicles) of which I am a fan. The events take place some six hundred years prior to the first book of the series.
It follows the titular character as she arrives in the capital, Belisaere. Her mother is an important figure in the Goldsmith’s Guild, and the guilds now run the city in place of a king who refuses to rule until his daughter returns. Not to mention she is linked to both the royal line and the Abhorsens.
As ever, Nix creates a fascinating world that is both detailed and familiar yet fresh and unique. The characters are nicely drawn, even if some are a touch cliche, which could also be said of the plot, but relying on a familiar core seems to ground the events and the more fantastical elements.
As the protagonist spends most of the book being kept in the dark, so do we as readers, which I found as frustrating as Clariel. She’s also a character, perhaps because she’s a teenager, who is prone to self-centred moaning, not all of it without reason, but it drags at times.
The book is read by Graeme Malcolm, who does a good job, bringing clarity and enough twisting of voice to imbue the characters with their own personality.
So nothing particularly groundbreaking, but an entertaining tale nonetheless that takes place in a delicious landscape. It’s a realm I would be happy to slide into again.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: Old Kingdom
The $100 StartupBuy NowBuy Now
The dream of working for yourself, doing what you enjoy and keeping everything you earn. It seems to be the dream of many. This is a book that falls into the cadre that promise you can work less, earn more and be perpetually happy.
It’s included in the Business section, but there’s very little with regards to the practicalities of how to start and run a business. It sticks to general ideas. For example, the thrill of the first sale is mentioned, but doesn’t say how to get it.
This isn’t that kind of book. This is purely about telling the story behind a number of small businesses, how they got started (broadly) and encouraging you to make the jump. It’s all about inspiration.
With that in mind, it’s very good. It covers a wide array of people and projects (though few seem to have started for $100) and attempts to open the reader’s eyes to what small businesses exist while breaking down traditional ideas of what constitutes a ‘business.’
It’s narrated by Thomas Vincent Kelly, who does a perfectly acceptable job, but for a while I wasn’t sure if the voice was actually software as he has a habit of pausing around people’s names, like they’d been dropped in later.
I wouldn’t say audio was the best format for this book either, as there are various checklists and tables that don’t make a whole lot of sense when read out. Plus it doesn’t make it easy to refer back to things, which you’d surely want to do if you were serious about implementing any of it.
As a tool for inspiration and some examples of real-world businesses, it’s an entertaining and fast-paced read. As a practical guide to creating and running a business, it’s less potent.
Gregor and the Prophecy of BaneBuy NowBuy Now
This is the second in the series, and I have previously read Gregor the Overlander (although I don’t appear to have reviewed it).
Despite vowing not to return, the kidnapping of his baby sister forces Gregor to venture into the hidden realm in the depths of the Earth once more. There he finds the reason his sister was kidnapped: the Prophecy of Bane suggests the gnawers (rats) will try to kill her, in order to take the fight out of Gregor, who it foretells will slay ‘the Bane’ — a giant white rat who could lead them to conquer the Underland.
The is the same Suzanne Collins who wrote The Hunger Games and her dark side if very much in evidence here. Few punches are pulled and a number of characters are killed, often in quite gruesome ways.
Although it’s aimed at kids, I don’t remember the first book talking down to its reader, but this certainly did, simplifying and labouring points that didn’t need it.
Most of the book is taken up by the quest to kill the Bane. It didn’t offer much insight into the characters or the Underland. Although there are plenty of episodes, everything seems to go very smoothly and the story gets wrapped up with a nice warm bow at the end, as if to balance out some of the darker stuff.
It’s read by Paul Boehmer, who does a reasonable enough job, but didn’t draw me in particularly and, I felt, didn’t suit the narrative.
So not one for me and not one I would recommend, to anyone of any age.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Underland Chronicles
Steve JobsBuy NowBuy Now
There are few people who haven’t heard of Steve Jobs, both within the tech community and without. This book is based on a lot of interviews with Jobs and his friend, family and co-workers over the course of a couple of years.
As Jobs was so inextricably linked to the company he co-founded, it’s also a history of Apple too, from initial inception through to becoming (at the time) the most valuable company on the planet.
The book seems very heavily weighted towards the later years, with the first half focusing on the time up to Jobs’ return to Apple and the second-half all about his subsequent success with products like the iMac, iPod and iPhone.
Perhaps because so much has been written about Jobs and Apple, I felt I already knew much of what was covered. There were plenty of insights too though, but the book seemed more a biography of the company than Jobs himself.
It did open him up a little, from his legendary bullying, to his propensity to cry in meetings (in the early days at least). What was laid bare was that he was a man who didn’t make compromises in his products. Which nearly killed several of his companies.
It also showed he could see things many in the industry appear to have missed (and indeed, many of his customers didn’t realise they wanted). Hence why he ‘stole’ and made popular many of the ideas he saw at Xerox Parc. It was also how Apple itself came to take a big role in early consumer computing (until then most systems came as a kit of parts). iPods, iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad all show a similar ability to understand how ordinary people would utilise a technology that others in the industry didn’t seem to grasp.
Was Steve a nice guy? No. Was he a great businessman? No (NeXT’s hardware business vanished and it wasn’t far off bankruptcy when it was bought by Apple, Pixar’s early movies were financed by Disney, he even killed several of Apple’s own products, such as the Lisa). Did he change and shape numerous industries? Absolutely. The narrative also shows how he learned from his mistakes.
The book paints a picture of a complex person, riddled with insecurities but who had unquestioning vision. It was an interesting read, but I didn’t feel it opened up Steve the person that much.
SeraphinaBuy NowBuy Now
I couldn’t honestly tell you where I got the recommendation for this, but I’m glad that I listened to it because I thoroughly enjoyed it.
In a world where dragons and humans once fought there is now an unsteady peace. The dragons can take human form and live among their former enemies in an effort to better understand them and help bridge the divide. Although forbidden to ‘feel’ some fall in love or sleep with humans, giving rise to hybrids. Our protagonist, Seraphina, is one such hybrid.
As everyone prepares for the anniversary of the peace treaty, a plot, in which both sides have a hand, is slowly revealed. Will the land be thrown into war once more, or can Seraphina and her friends avert that outcome?
Is the book perfect? No. It’s a touch clichéd, is packed with fantasy tropes and everything goes a far too smoothly. I didn’t care.
There were some parts where it seemed to get stuck navel-gazing and I’m not sure the vast amount of time dedicated to Seraphina’s ‘grotesque garden’ added much, but they’re relatively minor gripes. The whole forbidden love angle felt like it was designed for the Twilight generation though.
I can see why it’s classed as Young Adult rather than simply regular Fantasy. That’s not to detract from the story or to demean the work in any way. It was a book that I looked forward to coming back to and thought about when I wasn’t listening to it.
It may not be the most challenging read, but the characters are nicely drawn within their moulds, the story has enough invention to keep you interested and the plot will keep you guessing too.
Mandy Williams and Justine Eyre do an excellent job narrating, embodying the characters they voice.
There’s already a sequel out. I’ll have to see if the enjoyment levels can be maintained.
Genre: Young Adult
The Insidious Dr. Fu-ManchuBuy NowBuy Now
Technically, this was released as The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (although the hyphen was later dropped). The US market had the alternative title. Needless to say, the author was also known by another name (Sax being his pen name).
It follows the tale of (Denis) Nayland Smith but is narrated by his friend Dr. Petrie in very much the Holmes/Watson style. Their mission, started late one night, is to track and capture a master criminal known as Dr. Fu Manchu. He, we are told, is a brilliant and ruthless adversary who will stop at nothing to carry out the work of some clandestine group.
Unlike Holmes, Nayland Smith represents the crown and carries some high-ranking but unexplained position, not that the resources of Scotland Yard usually help him in the pursuit of his foe. So the story is largely one of the pair racing to save the latest target of Dr. Fu Manchu (often failing) and picking up the pieces of yet another murder, all while trying to get closer to the man himself.
It’s fast-paced and action-packed, very much a boys’ own adventure and a tale of Empire. The only woman of note is a slave of the doctor’s who falls in love with Petrie and does much to save him in times of peril.
The tale takes us through the underbelly of London in the early 20th century; involving drugs, slavery and murder. It is the attitude to race that modern readers will find most distasteful though, as Rohmer vilifies practically anyone who is not white (a view not uncommon at the time and present in many works of the period, not that this makes it any more defensible).
The notion and attitudes are a bit show-stopping early on but then increase in frequency later in the story, leaving no room for interpretation as to his meaning. Although the language is a bit blunter, there’s echoes in much of what we see in the press today.
This was another Librivox recording and was read by the mysterious FNH (from sunny Anchorage, Alaska, as stated at the end of each chapter). Very good quality, one of the best audiobooks I have listened too and easily on a par with any professional recording.
Provided you can stomach the racism, it’s an intriguing enough story with a quick pace.
Series: Fu Manchu
The AlchemistBuy NowBuy Now
Nicolas Flamel was a scribe and manuscript-seller who lived in 14th century France. Some time after his death he was assigned a reputation as an alchemist and the creator of the Philosopher’s Stone, which produced an elixir that enabled immortality and could create silver and gold. He is one of the main characters of this story.
Moving the setting to modern day California. We find Flamel and his also-immortal wife running a bookshop. Until an old enemy arrives to try and take The Codex – a book from an old sorcerer that contains the recipe for the life-extending potion, among other things. During this attack, a pair of siblings intervene and are drawn into the narrative. They, it turns out, are mentioned in the book.
The rest of the story is essentially a chase as the small group flees their pursuers and run into, obtains shelter from or picks up various other mythological figures.
It’s an interesting enough story, but aside from running into various figures, it’s little more than a chase. I didn’t find myself engaging with the narrative or the characters to any great depth and was quite glad to get to the end.
The reading was fine and he does a reasonable job of making each character unique.
An inoffensive but uninspiring read.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
The Half-Life of FactsBuy NowBuy Now
The word fact is generally associated with something unchanging, something solid. It’s not the case though. You only have to look at the newspaper headlines in any year to see how things change (medical advice, for one).
Why they change, when they change and when we learn about the change is the focus of this book. The reasons vary, from better measuring techniques to re-examination to new experimentation. It appears their path follows some sort of pattern, or have so far.
We’re already at the point where 50% of the ‘facts’ we’re taught as youngsters will be incorrect in our own lifetimes. The half-life is measured in years, rather than generations.
This is an interesting take on the subject. While others have raised concern about our growing dependence on search engines to answer our questions, the author actually sees this as a benefit, because it means we always get the latest wisdom.
The delivery was a little bland and I found this hard going. At a little over 200 pages it’s hardly long yet still felt like it could have been covered by a long essay rather than a whole book. You could probably get most of the information in a far more succinct format elsewhere.
Guns, Germs and SteelBuy NowBuy Now
Like many people, the idea of where I come from fascinates me. What led us to this point? Similarly, the rise of certain nations and geographies over others also interests me.
During the age of empires, this was largely put down to superior genetics or foreigners being racially inferior. So when Jared Diamond was asked the question by a friend in New Guinea, who certainly wasn’t inferior, he set out to find some answers.
It’s hard to say if his conclusions are true, but many of them certainly passed the smell test. If you believe him, a lot of it simply comes down to being born in the right place. There were certainly a few areas where, despite the endless examples, I’d debate the point (crops being unable to spread north and south and the unsuitability of African mammals to domestication being two).
Regardless of their validity, they certainly opened my eyes to some things I hadn’t considered and made me look at history with fresh eyes. That’s no mean feat.
If I have a criticism it’s that the author spends a lot of time trying to anticipate criticisms and back up everything with example after example after example. After this long, almost everything is speculation.
I found it to be quite a good companion piece to Civilization, with the latter aimed at more recent history, while this book focuses on what allowed the foundations to be built.
It’s perfectly well read, but the quality did seem to fluctuate a bit (a couple of times I thought the reader had changed at the start of a new chapter).
A good and interesting read.
Don QuixoteBuy NowBuy Now
When you’re counting down the chapters, the hours and minutes until it finishes, you know a book isn’t floating your boat. This became a battle of attrition that, by rights, I should have given up on. As an audiobook it has a running time of over 21 hours and this is only part one.
The story nominally follows the titular ‘hero’ as he opts to become a knight errant and, accompanied by his faithful squire, goes wandering about the Spanish countryside. The delusioned pair then barrel from scrape to tragedy largely caused by their own ineptitude and fantasy.
The book also contains several other stories, both in the form of fiction found by a character and those re-told by characters we meet. Some of these are passable enough and were what kept me going, because the main narrative isn’t funny or very interesting, not even tragically so. It doesn’t help that the ‘heroes’ are just a pair of idiots who it is impossible to relate with (even if they weren’t from 17th century Spain).
This was a Librivox recording. As it’s so long, the audio is read by many different people. The quality (technical and vocal) ranges from the very good to the barely capable. I understand why it was split between many people but I’m not sure I’d listen to something by multiple readers again, it’s simply too jarring.
Needless to say, I won’t be bothering with volume 2. If you’re into literature maybe this will appeal. If not, avoid.
Series: Don Quixote
The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesBuy NowBuy Now
This isn’t a novel but rather a collection of stories, each one a different tale covering the investigation of a mystery by Holmes. They were originally serialised in a magazine, which explains some of the cross and back references (that come across as a bit of self-promotion).
They’re charming enough tales, but a little uncomplicated compared to modern mysteries. To be fair, their length doesn’t allow too much time to build layers and add depth. Instead, most are populated by fixed caricatures and recognisable stereotypes.
They vary in quality, with some being better than others — developing more naturally and having some actual investigation — rather than simply being dictated for Holmes to provide an answer without leaving his rooms.
Some are less a mystery than others, with the answer being easy enough to guess at.
Another Librivox recording, this time by Mark Smith, who does an excellent job, altering his voice to inhabit each character and, despite being an American, doing well with quintessentially British fare.
An entertaining, if not particularly challenging read.
Series: Sherlock Holmes
IncarceronBuy NowBuy Now
Another of those books that I have on my shelf with no real memory of where the recommendation came from.
The story follows the tale of two protagonists who are separated but linked, one living in the faux 17th century outside of Incarceron — a giant, self-aware prison set up as an Eden and rehabilitation project for the world’s criminals — and one trapped inside, in what is decidedly not a paradise.
There’s plenty of interesting ideas here, both in terms of a vast, AI-controlled prison and the mirror provided by Protocol, which is its own form of prison for those forced to obey an outdated societal structure.
I found it a good read, if the constant need to supply a crisis and the random wanderings into locations that had no bearing on the story did prove a little wearisome (how often can a ‘best friend’ turn on people or be feared of doing so?).
It rattled along nicely without providing much of a challenge, or a huge amount of depth. Nice to see a strong female character who wasn’t sidelined, even if she is a princess.
I did find myself rapidly turning pages as the story builds to its climax, which is a good sign I was hooked.
Genre: Young Adult
The Thirty-Nine StepsBuy NowBuy Now
I was familiar with the story, having seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation, but while there are plenty of similarities, the book is markedly different.
The book is, naturally, a little slower but this is balanced out by some nice touches as we dig into how our protagonist, Richard Hannay, evades the police and his other pursuers.
Having said that, we don’t spend much time building tension, it’s largely running and escaping, but when he is cornered or captured there is little time devoted to raising the stakes, as you would see in more modern novels.
Unlike the various adaptations, it’s also very light on women. They make almost no appearance with little more than a passing mention. This limits the possibilities for engagement or interaction, although it is partially made up for using internal monologue. It lacks the banter of the movie adaptations though, and is poorer for it.
Another LibriVox recording, this time read by Adrian Praetzellis. Well read too and he has a voice that is very suitable for the material, quite formal, but clear. As the story is told from the first person, it was easy to imagine his was our protagonist’s voice.
Not a bad book, and quite short, with some inventive sequences, but ultimately it was difficult to empathize and it lacked depth. Worth a go if you’re looking for some straightforward boy’s own action.
The PrinceBuy NowBuy Now
This is one of those books that has a reputation, and one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. It was originally published in the 16th century, partly based on the author’s observations of the various wars to control the city-states that made up Italy at the time.
Unlike the chivalric code, as espoused by Charlemagne, Machiavelli exposed a world in which acts of barbarism were encouraged in order to take and maintain control of a state. At the time, his words were supposedly met with uproar (despite the book not being published until after his death).
This is the book that led to the term ‘Machiavellian’ entering our lexicon, describing practices that are deceitful, devious and brutal. It’s certainly not about noble traditions or knightly conduct. This is about clawing your way to the top and fighting off all-comers looking to take what you have.
I found it hard going, largely because it the subject is quite dry and, frankly, I found few parallels to my life. You can certainly see its influence in a lot of modern-day political dramas and I can understand why many of Europe’s leaders are thought to have read it.
I guess it was nice to reaffirm my views on how the ‘upper’ classes got where they are. It wasn’t down to Godly decree, it was ruthlessness, plus some luck.
This was another LibriVox recording. The nice part is there were a few versions to choose from. I opted for version 4, recorded by Clive Catterall. It has excellent production quality and Clive does a good job reading it in a clear voice. He seems perfect for this sort of material. Not sure how he’d fair with more engaging material.
The good news is it’s short. While it was an interesting insight into a particular period of history, I didn’t find much else to hold me.
A Princess of MarsBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve seen the movie. I actually quite like it. Not that it’s an imperative as the film differs markedly from the book. It’s fair to say this is a story of its time, having been published in 1917 (and written in 1911).
The details of how exactly our hero, John Carter, gets from Earth to Mars are somewhat vague, but once there it’s a non-stop action ride featuring fights and escapes. This is very much a tale of men, with the women relegated to small roles around which actions are taken, they do almost nothing themselves.
The characters also feel shallow and cliché to modern tastes and some of the ideas are a little entertaining given more recent knowledge of Mars. It’s also very formal and, despite the ease with which the story descends into murder and mayhem, haughty about its morals. Yet Carter kills people or causes them to be killed without guilt or remorse, he’s constantly self-aggrandizing and apparently has no flaws.
The story skips along at a good pace and is entertaining enough. It felt quite short too. It’s quoted at a bit over 7 hours.
I listened to this as a free recording by Librivox and was quite impressed. It wasn’t perfect, there were some repeated lines, chapter 18 goes a bit weird (with some of it appearing in a later chapter) and I wasn’t a massive fan of the introduction at the start of each chapter. Having said that, the reader, Thomas Copeland, does a very good job and has a voice that suits the material. If you don’t like his version there are others to choose from.
Not a bad book if you’re able to ignore the flaws.
Genre: Science Fiction
The Thief’s GambleBuy NowBuy Now
I have absolutely no idea where I got the recommendation for this book. It’s been sat on my shelves for a while (no reflection of the book, many others do too) and it was almost a random pick from amongst the pile.
It’s a fairly classic fantasy tale, set in a pseudo-medieval landscape in which wizards, thieves and fighting men mingle with the rest of the populace.
To start with I was a little concerned at how ‘paint by numbers’ the characters were, but it settled down as the story unfolded and the characters got to step out of their stereotypes. Having a female protagonist gives a slightly different perspective as well. Not that it changes much, this is very much a story packed with action and adventure.
I did find the balance of the book a little off. There’s a lot of build-up and story before the key discovery, but the rest just seemed a little too rushed as we headed for the end.
I didn’t dislike the story, which had plenty of moments that kept me turning pages, but neither did it leave me yearning to pick up another in the series.
Series: The Tales of Einarinn
The MartianBuy NowBuy Now
This was another of those books that seemed to be growing in popularity to the point that I kept finding mentions of it wherever I went.
The premise is simple. In the not too distant future, NASA has been begun sending people to Mars. Ares 3, the third such mission, has been on the ground for less than a week when a storm threatens to knock over their ascent vehicle, which they need to get home, so they’re forced to leave. En-route to it, an accident means they leave a man behind, believing he’s dead. Only astronaut Mark Watney isn’t dead, yet.
We then follow Watney as he tries to overcome all the challenges of surviving on a hostile planet millions of miles from Earth and the nearest help, which he can’t reach as he has no radio. It’s Apollo 13 for the Mars generation.
It makes for an interesting tale of what scientists, engineers and those of a logical persuasion can overcome, told largely through Watney’s logs. It’s interspersed with his wry sense of humour, which helps to lighten the technical stuff.
The only issues are that, in order to prevent the story getting boring, it needs to through a constant series of challenges at the protagonist, who appears to be the unluckiest man alive (there’s barely a piece of equipment or task that doesn’t fail at some point). It’s also very focused on the technical details, rarely does it reflect on Watney’s inner emotions (or anyone else’s).
Still, a very good read. A film version is due to be released in late 2015.
Genre: Science Fiction
The Book of English Place NamesBuy NowBuy Now
Do you look at the names of the places around you? Have you ever wondered where they come from? Well this book attempts to explain, some of them at least.
It focuses solely on England, going area by area, county by county. Even so it only covers the more interesting place names or larger towns and cities. It’s enough to show the history of diversity we have though, with many areas showing a prevalence from among the Old Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Norman names.
There are also several sections where particular naming conventions are explored, such as names resulting from farming, for example. There’s also a handy appendix detailing the elements common to many place names. Every ‘rule’ has exceptions though, as detailed throughout the book.
It included plenty of information I didn’t know before, in the naming of places, but also their history. I live near Southampton, for example, and didn’t realise the county it belongs to (Hampshire) is named after it. It was originally just called Homtun, the reference to south was added later, to distinguish it from what would become Northampton.
This is far from a straight dictionary of names and meaning though. While it may not cover as many places as other books, each entry has a description of the name and often history relating to it, making it a more pleasant read. The nature of the entries also make it very easy to dip in and out.
A very interesting read.
Ancillary JusticeBuy NowBuy Now
I opted for this book because it kept popping up in the places I went, all with praise. I had held off originally because the description didn’t quite grab me enough, I didn’t think there was much of a story there. Just goes to show that you should follow your instincts.
This is a space opera, with a story spanning many planets and the fate of not just an empire, but its billions of citizens. Some is told in flashback, while we follow the protagonist on her journey in the present day.
Hollywood, indeed much of the media, is of the opinion that people can’t focus for more than a few seconds at a time these days, that you need a rapid cut or an explosion to keep their eyes from drifting back to their phones. It’s not true. Engaging characters will always hold our attention and this book is filled with them.
Along with the wonderfully deep and rounded people goes a complex culture and well-drawn landscapes. That was enough to keep me listening, and it had to be, because not much happens for ninety percent of the book.
We’re drip fed tiny amounts of information as we try to understand what has led the main character on this journey and what the goal of it actually is. The occasional rumple at the start soon gives way to a long, drawn out traipse across the pages.
Without such excellent writing I wouldn’t have hung around and this book would have disappeared without trace. That’s high praise.
Adjoa Andoh does an excellent job of delivering both the story and of keeping the multitude of characters separate to help you distinguish what is going on.
Although I have opted for three stars, it’s more like 3.5. I really did like it, but I don’t think I’ll be buying the next book in the series, which is the ultimate review.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Imperial Radch
The SilkwormBuy NowBuy Now
I very much enjoyed the first book in the series, so had no hesitation in seeking this one out.
We again follow private detective Cormoran Strike, with the help of Robin, his secretary, who is rapidly turning into his sidekick/partner. Again we’re given a mystery that appears to be one thing, but is in fact something else.
From a technical standpoint, I do admire these sorts of stories. There’s a large pool of potential suspects, all of whom need a backstory, motivation and who must appear as plausible perpetrators without making any of them stand out until the great reveal at the end.
This book takes place in the literary world. It seems to be a theme that has been done to death (no pun intended), and perhaps that’s why I found this less engaging than the previous book. It also felt drawn out, padded and bloated to the point that it dragged along.
There are various elements that appear in the story but have no direct impact on it. If they were there to fill out an otherwise short text, to provide punctuation, then they could be overlooked, but there’s already more than enough and some just seem to be thrown in for no real reason.
It’s a good enough story, but perhaps the lack of urgency that was present in the first book (Cormoran’s impending financial collapse) removed some of the drama. Added to the drawn out story (not the first time I’ve leveled this at Rowling), it felt a little stodgy.
Robert Glenister once again does a very good job of delivering the text.
So, not a bad book, but it lacked that extra sparkle that made the first book shine.
Series: Cormoran Strike
Atomic AwakeningBuy NowBuy Now
I come down on the side of non-nuclear, but I’m not above changing my opinion and an article around the time of the Fukishima disaster, an obvious low point for nuclear power, made me wonder if there were other types of reactor that could be the answer.
With a subtitle of ‘A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power’ I was hoping this would look at the options going forward. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
The book starts with the history. It’s a whistle-stop tour, even if it doesn’t feel that way, because it goes through all of the discoveries and inventions that were necessary to allow nuclear power to be developed, from Marie Curie to Einstein to the Manhattan Project.
I assumed it would go on to discuss the future, but it didn’t. Instead, after dedicating probably 80% to general history and a bit more to the author’s personal history, there’s a the briefest mention of how the industry has picked up. As it was written before Fukishima, it doesn’t include the subsequent downturn.
To add insult to injury, it changes from being objective about the risks to a PR exercise, practically telling the reader that fears of nuclear radiation are completely overplayed and that hard lobbying by the environmental movement was the only reason we stopped building new plants.
It doesn’t work so well when you’ve been led through a history that includes tests, near-misses and frankly ludicrous examples of people playing with power beyond their understanding and control (several scientists gave themselves lethal doses by accidentally dropping things).
It’s read by John McLain. My only criticism is that he sounds more like a fifties All-American hero than someone able to deliver lessons in nuclear physics. It took a bit of getting used to, but was fine.
So, if you want a pro-nuclear book looking at the history and development of nuclear weapons and power, this is for you, if you want a balanced argument about nuclear power and how it could be used in the future, don’t bother.
The Last KingdomBuy NowBuy Now
This the first book in the Warrior Chronicles, which chart the life story of Uhtred, Ealdorman (a lord) of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh) in Northumbria (now Northumberland). It starts with him as a ten-year-old, shortly before his father is killed and he’s adopted by a Danish Earl as the Danes invade northern England.
Uhtred’s journey through the books becomes linked to that of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, the only English kingdom not to fall to the Danes (as the title suggests).
The book is fast-paced, with plenty of action and battles, between which are spaced various looks at daily life in the ninth century, which are quite interesting themselves.
I enjoyed it a lot, often finding myself looking forward to getting back to it, though it wasn’t the sort of tale to linger. It’s very much a boys own story of fighting and valour, skirting over many of the day to day issues of life for ordinary folk. While it tries to reflect the time, it’s not a history book.
Bizarrely, I’ve previously listened to the third book in the series. I held off on buying another because the story descriptions didn’t really grab me. Another reason was the reader.
I had an abridged copy of The Lords of the North, which was read by Jamie Glover, who did a magnificent job. This book is read by Jonathan Keeble, in a very different style, much rougher and broader. It’s probably more reflective (Uhtred is from the north after all). To start with it grated a little, but I soon settled into it and he does a good job.
A good read if you like swordplay, the era and a typical hero journey, just don’t expect it to be too historically accurate (though, to be fair, much is in dispute about the period). I’ll definitely be looking out others in the series.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Warrior Chronicles
Consider PhlebasBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve been meaning to read some of Banks’ work for a while. Jumping into a series is tough, so I tried to find a good place to start, or at least a representative example, but I never found the descriptions engaging enough for me to take the plunge.
I finally forced myself to start at the beginning, which was first published back in 1987. The age doesn’t particularly show, with so many of the ideas far flung even today. The storytelling has a bit of a hard sci-fi leaning, but isn’t too wrapped up in the science that it gets in the way.
Following a single protagonist and a (literal) band of others, the story takes place in the middle of a war between the Culture (a society where humans and machines live together) and the Idirans, a warrior race keen on expansion.
The characters were interesting enough, if a little under-explored, but my main gripe was the winding way the story progressed. The goal is set up near the start and the main man has to endure multiple obstacles to reach it. Many of these simply felt tossed in and ended up as wayward ramblings that added nothing to the story or character development.
Whole tranches of the book could have been deleted and you wouldn’t have lost anything except some length, plus some disdain for organised religion.
Peter Kenny’s reading is good, clear and appropriate, giving nice depth to the characters.
Not a bad book, just not one that particularly grabbed, inspired or hooked me.
Genre: Science Fiction
SteelheartBuy NowBuy Now
We think of superheroes as good. They’re always shown protecting humanity, whether it be from supervillains or some other threat. But what if they were bad? They could subjugate humanity.
That is the premise behind Steelheart, which starts ten years after a star called Calamity appeared in the heavens and Epics (those with powers of some kind) were created.
It was enough of a spin on the notion to get me in the door and I wasn’t disappointed.
The story follows the exploits of David, a young man looking to join the Reckoners, the only group who tries to fight back for humanity, the only ones who kill Epics.
Like I said, great concept, which is well executed, with a range of vigilante characters. There’s a little too much box ticking in the roles (the nerd, the brawn, the — unfunny — joker, the love interest), but they’re reasonably drawn. There were also a lot of convenient elements that happen to pop up and solve a problem.
The created world is dense with ideas and backstory (understandably, this is the first in a series). Many are recognisable tropes, some are new (to me at least), but all are given a unique spin.
The true test of a story is engagement and I certainly found myself rooting for the Reckoners as they undertook their various challenges, practically cheering when they succeeded. There were plenty of twists and turns to keep me guessing though, especially around some of the key plot points.
Praise too for MacLeod Andrews, who reads the audio version, and does a stellar job, altering his voice to help being each character to life.
A good read, but not a classic, and one I was quickly able to forget (rather than immediately hunting for the sequel).
Genre: Science Fiction
Why Nations FailBuy NowBuy Now
There are books that you can’t put down and there are books you can’t wait to end. This was the latter for me.
The experience started badly in fairness. The opening chapters are a deluge of information and facts that come at you in an endless tirade with barely a pause for breath (literally in the audio version). Dan Woren reads the words legibly enough (if with some odd pronunciations to British ears), but so quickly and with so little emphasis on important points as to make it overwhelming.
After being bamboozled at the start, I found myself often having to skip back and re-listen to sections because I’d tuned out. I’m not sure if that was down to the laconic voice or the unengaging content.
Don’t let the title fool you either, this isn’t about why nations fail. It’s a history lesson in why some countries are rich and others poor in the modern world. It charts everything from the Glorious Revolution in England, to the exploitation of South America by the Spanish, to the rise of China.
Their argument is simple enough: inclusive institutions. By that, they mean political and social institutions where the people have a say, be that laws to insure the state can’t simple take what you have built, or democratically elected officials.
That’s not a reason why nations fail, its a reason why they don’t have long term stability, which generally seems to come along with prosperity, education and free discussion, looking at the examples stated.
I’m reading a similar book, Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which delves into far more detail about the reasons nations fail to get out of poverty, and provides much greater insight.
Why Nations Fail is actually a history book, a look back at how various countries navigated their way into the top tier, or at least put themselves on the path towards it.
The book doesn’t attempt to provide answers, other than ‘because they don’t have inclusive institutions.’ It’s an interesting look back at the reasons certain things happened in particular countries, although each of those can only go so deep. It really only serves to highlight how little any of them shared.
If economic history interests you, then worth a look, but if you want to understand why nations fail, look elsewhere.
DodgerBuy NowBuy Now
You can tell a good book when you’re finding an excuse to squeeze in a few pages here and there. Pratchett has become one of my favourite authors, for consistency if nothing else.
Dodger is a bit of a departure from the usual Discworld series, but Dickensian London is actually very similar to Ankh-Morpork. It is littered with an array of interesting characters, some of them taken out of the history books, who all revolve around the loveable Dodger.
Set against the squalor that was life for many during the Victorian era, it tells an uplifting tale of a quick-thinking, quick-talking rogue with a heart of gold as he finds himself propelled up the social ladder by a series of unlikely incidents.
Okay, so the book isn’t perfect. As I said, Dodger’s rise is in no small part down to luck most lottery winners can only dream of. The story’s very sentimental and rose tinted, even if it does try to show the conditions as they were. It’s a little saccharine even.
That said, I loved it, in no small part because it delivered what most readers want: justice. The good were rewarded and the bad were vanquished.
As I said, I found myself drawn back to it, and was desperate to finish it come the end. Some of that was down to the pacing, which is rapid, with little time to worry about much before it’s on to the next adventure.
If you like Pratchett’s work, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It may not be his best, but that’s more than good enough.
The Cuckoo’s CallingBuy NowBuy Now
I don’t normally read mysteries, although I do watch them on TV, strangely. I obviously knew who the book was actually written by, and I’d kind of avoided it for that reason, but it got enough praise I thought I would give it a go. Glad I did.
I was pulled into the story very quickly by our unorthodox introduction to the two main characters. They’re both nicely drawn and well rounded, even if they do fill somewhat stereotypical roles. Cormoran is a private detective, and Robin is a secretarial temp, though she quickly turns out to be doing a lot more than usual duties.
Stereotypes are something of a theme, with many of the characters appearing to simply tick boxes for their various roles, whether it be solicitors or fashion designers, supermodels or policemen. I don’t think this is generally a bad thing, because these people have become stereotypes for a reason. It also acts as shorthand for the numerous characters we meet. They’re kept from being cardboard cut-outs because each is given a slight spin to keep it fresh.
I’m usually fairly good at reading the signs, but was kept guessing until the end, which is all you can ask from a mystery. The spotlight switched between various people during the story too. Thankfully we didn’t get a Poirot/Marple-esque summing up with all of the possible perpetrators, but there is a long scene where Strike gets to show off, something that felt a little too staged.
There were a few jarring moments when the veil of reality was rumpled a little too much as well, but these were few and far between.
As for the presentation, Robert Glenister does a great job of bringing the characters to life, along with subtle accents.
A good read, an interesting story, a complex and ruthless villain, which we’re led through by a pair of rounded protagonists. There’s already another book in the series and I wouldn’t hesitate in picking it up.
Series: Cormoran Strike
TemeraireBuy NowBuy Now
Set during the Napoleonic Wars. The current stalemate is making the British nervous, despite Nelson having the French fleet pinned in port. The Navy isn’t the only force watching for an invasion force though. The skies are patrolled by the Air Corps, who ride dragons.
The French have more of the beasts, and bigger ones, so capturing a dragon egg as a prize is not just financially rewarding, it’s strategically important. That’s the fate of Will Laurence, a captain in His Majesty’s Navy. When the egg hatches before they can reach port and chooses Laurence as its rider, he must give up his chosen profession to become an aviator, a far less respectable profession.
Despite the fantastical element, the book has a tone similar to a historical novel, using real-life events, such as the battle of Trafalgar, to anchor it in reality. This helps to ground the story, but the attention to detail, both relating to species and history, as well as training and upkeep, really flesh it out too.
It evoked similarities to Harry Potter for me, with someone new to the world being thrust into school in Scotland to learn their craft, in the hope of them becoming an important player. We do spend a lot of time with the main duo during training, which isn’t always that interesting.
The details do help to keep it from becoming boring, and help make it an engaging story, though I did find the constant mentions of the main character taking offence at a turn of phrase or manners got a bit tiresome after a while, no matter how realistic it might be.
On a technical note, the book contains numerous examples of unnecessary spaces that split words, sometimes just the last letter, which was odd and somewhat jarring to read.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable book, and I’ll certainly look out for others in the series.
Series: The Temeraire Series
Junkyard PlanetBuy NowBuy Now
Aside from the occasional headline or TV news story disclosing how our waste ends up in a developing nation to be sorted by children, I don’t generally think about what happens to my rubbish, recyclables or otherwise. The only other time I think about it is when I’m reviewing the list of things I’m allowed to throw in my recycling bin, which is decidedly lacking.
So this book provided a fascinating insight into the global trade in junk. And by that I mean anything that can be recycled in some way, whether that be direct reuse, or stripped for materials.
The scrap trade is now global, and Minter explains why those headlines about our waste being shipped to China, or India, or other locations with cheap labour, is actually a good thing (without that cheap labour it would end up in landfill). It’s an eye-opening journey through everything from the technology used by US recyclers to how the Chinese government is dealing with the growing pollution caused by an essential industry.
Not that the book was without issues for me. It focuses on a few materials (mainly metal, notably copper), with some others getting less attention (plastics) and some none at all (paper, fabric, glass). It is also heavily biased on two countries, the US and China. Some others are mentioned, but most only in passing.
Then there’s the simple notion of reducing demand. If we want to help the planet, and put an end to some of the polluting caused by the recycling industry, we need to stop buying so much. I get that, I do. Equally, Minter doesn’t address the fact that we can’t. Things don’t last forever, modern devices aren’t designed to for a start, and should I deny myself a faster, better, sometimes more energy efficient device because I want to stop the waste?
What about the world economy? It’s built on consumer power. We saw what happened when money got tight and people stopped buying so much: the world economy collapsed. The factories in China stopped producing and the scrap trade itself took a nose dive.
Then there’s the issue of re-use. Just because I’ve finished with a device doesn’t mean someone else can’t get a lot more out of it. That’s true, to a point. The book even describes Chinese dealers turning up their noses at phones only five year’s old. Yes we can send devices to developing nations so they can have access to things they may not otherwise have if they had to buy new, but eventually they’ll end up on the scrapheap, it’ll just be in a different nation. Out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a complex issue and there are some points that are a simplification too far. To be fair, he does also discuss the need for manufacturers to be held accountable, and to make devices that can be repaired, upgraded and, finally, disassembled easily.
And that’s before we get to some of the weird parts, such as when we spend a chapter in the passenger seat of a guy visiting scrapyards in the US, which doesn’t seem to add much, simply retreading many of the same points raised elsewhere.
Having said that, it will definitely open your eyes and make you look at the world a bit differently. It’s a thorough examination of modern consumer culture and will make you question things.
Stephen McLaughlin does an excellent job narrating this, so well you could believe he was the author.
The core message of this book is simple: reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s better do things in that order rather than toss something into your recycling bin and assume you’ve done your part. Sustainability is an issue that has been becoming more prevalent, but disposing of things, as this book shows, isn’t always so bad. We just need to try and do it responsibly.
A Web of AirBuy NowBuy Now
There are a few authors whose books I keep as a treat, because I know they’ll be good. Philip Reeve is one of those authors.
I’ve read all of the preceding works in the Mortal Engines universe, which have generally been quite large in scope, but this book is much narrower. While bigger interests are mentioned, indeed represented, the story is set in only two locations, and focuses on a small band of characters.
This doesn’t diminish the story, which shows a completely new dimension to the Mortal Engines’ universe to the ones we’ve seen so far, one where war and upheaval don’t stalk the land. Instead, we get to see how it normally operates.
Fever returns, still finding her way in the world. She’s used her skills to bring electric lighting and effects to a travelling theatre, one on wheels. Visiting a small port city, set in a crater left by an ancient super-weapon, she goes through her routine. Until she stumbles across the model of a glider.
Powered flight is a skill long since lost to the world, but one strange loner appears on the cusp of rediscovery. But others want to capture the technology, or destroy it. Can Fever help return mankind to the skies?
It’s a fast-paced story that kept me turning pages, and not a long book. The plot is fairly straight-forward, predictable even, and while still a good read, wasn’t quite on a par with the others in the series. This felt a bit like a standalone episode, whereas the others have been part of a larger story. Allusions to other events suggest this is a bridge to something bigger.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the book, which has great characters and is vividly drawn. There were flashes of Reeve’s wild inventiveness, but not as much as in other books. A solid instalment, but not an exceptional one.
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Series: Fever Crumb
The Innovator’s CookbookBuy NowBuy Now
This ‘cookbook’ gathers together a series of essays and interviews around the subject of innovation, from leaders in the field (so it says).
It was another book that turned into a war of attrition, each chapter a battle on the road to finishing it. It did spark some thoughts, but largely I just found myself tuning out of sections, forcing me to go back and re-read them, sometimes multiple times.
To call it a cookbook is a bit misleading, this isn’t a series of instructions about how to innovate or improve innovation, but rather a collection of unrelated essays that happen to share a theme.
The dry writing was generally unengaging and uninspiring, with little to back up the assertions being made. If that wasn’t enough, this is really aimed at corporate leaders who want to try and create an environment of innovation within their company. It has very little aimed a personal level. It’s all about what you should do to encourage others, not what I can do to innovate.
The one area where it saves itself is the interviews with actual people, although some of those seem so high up the chain as to be talking big ideas rather than personal processes.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, maybe give it a go, if you want to learn more about innovation, steer clear, because the most innovative part is the cover.
The Forever WarBuy NowBuy Now
The story follows the military career of William Mandella, a physics student drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force for a war against an alien race known as the Taurans.
Due to time dilation (the battles are all fought a long way from Earth, on planets near strategic “collapsars” that allow ships to cover distances faster than light), Mandella experience over a century of human development, but much of it is spent in transit.
The book was written in 1974, which accounts for some of the oddities in the timeline (the story starts in the late nineties, yet we’re far from a space-faring planet yet). And while some developments appear spot-on, it’s lacking many of the technologies that are now a staple (there are very few computers, no tablets or screens, there’s mention of microfiche at one point).
The story’s scope gives Haldeman chance to explore a lot of technologies and changing social norms over vast periods. Everything from powered fighting armour to stasis fields — where only rudimentary weapons can be used. Later on we’re told homosexuality has become the norm, to help control the population size.
While there are many advanced technologies, the book does stick try to remain scientifically accurate. So no ship can exceed the speed to light (the collapsars are the only way to do that), and fighting in the various hostile environments is far from easy.
Outside of the fighting, the structure also allows us to return to Earth, at a time when calories have become the currency, violence is rife and people sub-let jobs (this future certainly chimes with current trends). We also get to spend time on Heaven, an R&R planet for those who pick up injuries and need to regrow limbs (again, similar to current servicemen).
On a technical note, narrator George Wilson does an excellent job.
The book is an interesting look at the future, the futility of war, and how society may change, even if Haldeman didn’t get all the technologies right (no one does, to be fair). It’s not really a story of fighting (there’s little of it), more a diary of one person lost in time. I found some parts jarred (more the social aspects) and dragged. The long segments where he’s travelling may be accurate, but they’re not that interesting. Worth your time though, and I can see why it’s considered a ‘masterwork.’
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: The Forever War series
Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of PersuasionBuy NowBuy Now
Persuasion is something we encounter on a daily basis, not just through advertising, but in every one of our interactions. So it’s interesting to see what can be done better, or even simply to understand our own reactions.
This book presents a series of 50 ‘secrets’ that show how people’s decision making can be affected. The format is nice and straightforward, with short, punchy sections that make it easy to understand.
As with any work relating to people’s behaviour, I tend to take it with a pinch of salt. We’re all individuals, and while we may react in similar ways to certain things, applying the results to everyone is unrealistic.
To be fair to the authors, they do have a chapter on cultural differences, showing how people in different countries react in ways that are sometimes the polar opposite of another. They also have a section at the end with replies from people who have used the book’s wisdom to good effect in real life situations.
I’m not sure if there are citations in the paper version, but obviously there aren’t in an audiobook, so you’re taking the advice without any of what backs it up. The examples from real people at least go some way to alleviate concerns.
I listened to it on audiobook, but I’m thinking I might pick up a physical copy so I can dip into it when I want to recall a technique.
The book is well read by Clive Mantle, who delivers it clearly and in a lively enough way to save it feeling like it’s droning on.
It’s short, and light on detail, but that means the book is quick to get through and can be used as an easy reference. It’s not a textbook, which makes it ideal for getting you thinking about a subject, while leaving you to dig deeper on your own rather than bogging you down. I enjoyed it.
WormBuy NowBuy Now
The subtitle for this book is: The First Digital World War. That’s overstating it, to be honest. The book focuses on the creation of the world’s largest botnet by a worm called Conficker back in 2008.
At its peak, it was estimated to have infected between 9 and 15 million machines, and even as late as 2011 was still on roughly 1.7 million. That made it the largest botnet recorded. If all of the devices were used to transmit data together, there was a real possibility it would have overwhelmed the internet’s core infrastructure, effectively stopping it for a period of time.
To combat the worm, a loose team of researchers, anti-virus companies, registrars and others formed the Conficker Working Group (internally known as The Cabal). Having pulled the worm apart, they set about trying to defeat it, largely by pre-registering all the domains the software generated each day in order to check for new instructions.
This was a vast effort covering a huge number of top-level domains, which required international cooperation the likes of which were thought impossible. All while trying to open the eyes of the various governmental departments responsible for cyber security and get them on it too.
My favourite book in this genre is Clifford Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg, which is more a diary of how one man noticed, then traced, a hacker who passed through his system. This book isn’t on a par with that.
It’s short to start with (about six hours in audiobook form), and most of that is filled with unrelated material. The first two hours are basically a history of computing. Then you have the various aggrandizing descriptions of those involved (not their fault), as well as endless quoting of Cabal communications, a lot of which were bickering.
There’s very little technical detail, and it seems to come down to the only defence being the pre-registration of domains. Which proved pointless as one variant introduced its own peer-to-peer communication, so it didn’t require a domain. The only reason we didn’t see digital Armageddon was because the owner didn’t unleash it.
Much has changed since these events took place, six years is a long time in IT terms. Although I suspect the reaction by government departments is still equally slow and ineffective. It doesn’t fill you with confidence for the future of cyber defence.
Christopher Lane provides a precise, clear commentary, and seems to understand the material enough to not simple recite it in a monotone.
I was disappointed about both the layman’s language in most of the book, it read more like a long newspaper article designed for the masses than a book for those interested in cybercrime. That made it bloated, but also lacking in the technical details of how you could combat a threat like this.
I’ve yet to find a more recent tale of tracking hackers to match The Cuckoo’s Egg (released in 1989), the search continues.
LexiconBuy NowBuy Now
Words have power, but instead of inspiring, what if they could convince and command people to do whatever you said? That’s the premise of this book.
Poets, as they call themselves, have an unnatural gift for getting people to do what they say. Over millennia they have learned to identify a person’s segment, because each segment reacts to different keywords; the words that can bypass the brain’s natural defences and make the person hearing them do whatever you command.
What their secret organisation has been searching for is a bare word, something that can compromise anyone instantly. A so-called Babel event. With it, the wielder could control the world.
Poets learn to hide their emotions, so as not to give away their segment and potential compromise by one of their own. Emily is inducted, despite being too emotional, because she has a strong gift for persuasion. She steals the only known bare word, with devastating results.
It’s a very interesting concept, and you can see how poets would be able to exert significant influence in a world dominated by communication as ours is.
There’s a lot of running and chasing, which were the tough parts for me, they just weren’t very engaging. The scenes about the characters, their thoughts and fears, and learning about how compromise works, were the interesting bits for me.
The story is narrated by Heather Corrigan and Zach Appelman, who switch between the two main characters. It’s a novel approach, and they generally do a good job, although I’m not so sure about Heather’s Australian accent.
Although the ideas in the book are unique, it definitely chimed with my memories of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It’s a good story and an interesting read that will have you wondering if our animal brains, so geared towards speech, really can be subverted.
The Book of ThreeBuy NowBuy Now
The first book in the Chronicles of Prydain pentalogy, The Book of Three was originally publish in 1964. I mention this as its age does have a bearing on the review.
By modern standards, the book is short, even for a children’s book (it only took me a few hours). It’s also fairly simplistic and contains many tropes of the fantasy genre that are now considered a little passé (if still often used). It’s by no means a paint-by-numbers story filled with stereotypes though.
Based (loosely) on Welsh folklore, it name-checks a number of mythological people and places, though Prydain is far from a fantasy version of Wales.
Following Taran, an assistant pig-keeper, and a band of unusual companions as they try to warn their noble rulers of a dark uprising. The length means the story rips along, while being packed with action and adventure. There’s no time to dwell on anything before we’re on to the next thing.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for digging below the surface, and while the characters each have their own traits and flaws, few other than Taran are given much examination.
For all that, I was happy to return to it and pick up again. More of a 3.5 than a four-star perhaps, and you can see why it would be a better recommendation for younger readers, but fun nonetheless.
Series: The Chronicles of Prydain
Sleepless in HollywoodBuy NowBuy Now
The author is a producer, so the book provides an insiders look at the enigma that is the movie biz. Having worked in the industry for a long time, she’s able to provide her thoughts on what has changed. It isn’t just a series of her opinions and observations though, it also draws on others who have worked at the highest level.
In recent years, few people can have missed the rise of sequelitis, remakes and the use of other media (comics, TV shows, books, games, etc). If you want to know why, this book provides the answers. In fact, it shows how the industry has now split between tentpoles (the mega-budget blockbusters) and tadpoles (the tiny budget films that are often in Oscar contention).
Rather than focusing purely on the business as a whole, Obst does tell a lot of personal stories, so it’s a much Hollywood history as anything else. This does lead to some strange departures, including an entire chapter on her ventures into TV (a jump a lot of movie people have made).
One thing that does come out of the book is how Hollywood is constantly changing, none more-so than right now, when the shrinking revenue of DVD that has unpinned it for some time, has forced a search for new revenue streams, and no one seems sure what the long-term replacement will be.
If you have an interest in the business part of the movie biz, then this is definitely worth a look. It would be interesting to come back in a decade and see exactly what did happen.
One Summer: America 1927Buy NowBuy Now
I’m a big fan of Bryson, starting from way back when he (mainly) wrote travel books. More recently, he’s been focusing on in-depth looks at specific subjects, largely looking at history.
This book focuses on America in the summer of 1927. At the time, the US was starting its rise to dominance of the global stage, before then it had been Europe that had been preeminent.
Among the subjects covered are the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic, the decisions leading to the stock market crash, various headline grabbing events, including murders, the start of work on Mount Rushmore, baseball’s amazing season, attacks by anarchists, prohibition and, of course, gangsters.
To say that it’s based solely on the events of 1927 is a little misleading, because in order to give context, Bryson discusses much of what led to them, and also what impact they had. It also made me wonder if any year could have been used.
I found it an interesting read, filled with Bryson’s ability to dig out the interesting facts behind well-known stories and figures, as well an uncovering things you’ve probably never heard of (certainly for those outside the US).
It seemed to drag in a few places for me, especially nearer the end. It’s filled with such interesting stuff that it’s hard to stop though, because you never know what gem lies a few pages ahead.
Off the KUF Volume 2Buy NowBuy Now
Disclaimer: I wrote one of the stories featured in this book, so be aware there might be some bias (I’m obviously not reviewing my own work), but I will try to be honest.
This is the second in a trilogy of books written by the talented collection of authors who congregate on the Kindle User Forum.
First off, this is a big book. While it’s an anthology of short stories, there are so many it easily revivals good-sized novel (and at a bargain price too). Because each piece is separate, you can easily consume it in chunks though.
There were a couple of works where I found the story less engaging, or dragged a bit, but that was rare. On the flip side, most rattled along and will keep you turning pages no matter how late hour.
The format also lends itself to discovery, and there were certainly a number of stories in genres I would never have read, but which I enjoyed nonetheless. This books contains everything from the past to the future, the funny to the dark, plus more besides.
A great way to dip your toe into the writing of authors you may not have discovered, and genres you may normally avoid.
Series: Off the KUF
Predictably IrrationalBuy NowBuy Now
The human mind, and the way we react to things, is an area that has long been under study. There’s always more to discover though, probably because the subject is so complex.
This book sets out to explore how we make irrational decisions in many circumstances. Examples include how we react when presented with the offer of something for free, or how the offer of money affects things (we’ll happily help people out for a gift, or a feeling of doing good, but are insulted if someone offers us a small amount of money instead).
Some of the experiments and results will probably surprise you, and yet will probably ring true too.
There were a couple I would take umbrage with, and I suspect some of that may come down to the testing methodology (Ben Goldacre strikes again). Most of the testing seems to be done on students at some of the top universities in the U.S. As such, you’re getting the results of a very limited pool speaking economically, intellectually, socially and culturally.
It would have been far more interesting to compare some of these results with students from a different country, or pensioners, or criminals, or those in a developing nation, to see if there are actually a reflection of the human psyche or just the reaction of that group.
The book is read by Simon Jones, which threw me to start with, and made it hard to take seriously, as he also reads The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He does a good job though, and aside from some dodgy music as chapter dividers, and a advert at the end of the book (the first time I’ve come across that), the production is good.
All in all, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking book, that will make you question how you make decisions, just don’t rely on the scientific underpinning too much.
Command and ControlBuy NowBuy Now
I bought this expecting various tales of nuclear close calls, but that’s just one part of the book. It starts with a history of the development of nuclear weapons, from the days of the Manhattan Project in WWII through to the late 80s (presumably the latest declassified documents). Interspersed with this is an in-depth tale of an incident at a missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas that took place in September of 1980.
I found the shifting between the two hard to follow at times, with the gaps between various parts of the Damascus story so large that I found myself lost (until late on in the book when it begins to focus on it). Most of the incidents discussed weren’t quite what I was expecting either, with passing stories, not blow-by-blow accounts like the main one.
Perhaps that’s why there’s so much of the history of nuclear weapon development, testing, deployment and politics included — to help fill in for accounts that would have needed hard-to-get interviews. The problem with that is it makes for a long book that seems to drag on and on.
You can’t say it doesn’t cover the subject in detail though. Nuclear weapons have always been shrouded in secrecy and are still rarely discussed day-to-day, but some of the things covered will certainly give you a new respect for them, and it’ll scare you just how close we’ve come to both a devastating accident, and all-out war.
Schlosser covers everything from aircraft accidents, fires, launch detection systems being fooled by the sun, and the general lax attitude to security, any one of which could have resulted in armageddon (the book is about the US, but incidents aren’t limited to their shores). The worrying thing is just how close to reality spoofs like Doctor Strangelove were.
The reading by Scott Brick was fine, if uninspiring. His voice does sound reminiscent of an unflappable general, someone with the matter-of-fact tone of a news reader despite delivering incredulous information.
The problem is, the book is so long that it loses some of the shock value and turns into a plod. That and the weird structure make it hard to get through, even if it will open your eyes as to just how close we’ve come to annihilation.
GanymedeBuy NowBuy Now
While this was the first book of series I’ve read, it’s not the first book in the series. Didn’t seem to matter to following the story though, and I’d picked this one because it sounded more interesting than the others.
The author builds a detailed and believable world, one in which the US is divided by fighting factions and Texians control New Orleans. A group of pro-confederate supporters are hoping to tip the balance in the stalemate by smuggling a submarine out from its last resting place at the bottom of a lake, where it drowned its crew.
While the locations are densely described, and the characters are far from two-dimensional, that’s all the book seemed to offer, for first two-thirds at least. Finally, after a huge amount of build-up, we get some action, but it’s over and gone in no time, with little in the way of obstacles faced by the protagonists. In fact, there are too few of those throughout the novel, everything just flows along like the Mississippi. The florid descriptions did seem to get caught up in their own bounding similes on occasion as well.
As such, the book felt slow, with little to keep me hooked and turning pages, at least until the Ganymede actually set sail.
It’s not a bad book, and I’ve not read the others in the series, but I won’t be making a bee-line for them based on this.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Clockwork Century
And Another Thing…Buy NowBuy Now
The subtitle — part six of three — tells you everything you need to know. Adams may be dead and gone, but his work lives on, as beloved as ever. So much, in fact, that they commissioned another book, in no small part because Adams himself had stated he didn’t want to leave Mostly Harmless as the last entry.
Following in such auspicious footsteps has got to have been daunting, but Colfer largely seems to have pulled it off.
The usual cast of Arthur, Trillian, Ford and Zaphod return, along with other old and new names, including Arthur and Trillian’s daughter (Random), Thor and an immortal alien called Wowbagger (as well as others). The story starts where Mostly Harmless finished (although it’s been so long since I’ve read the originals, I didn’t remember that).
To begin with, the mimicking of Adams’ unique style felt forced. It didn’t seem natural and nothing seemed to flow. As the book progressed it settled down though, and soon got back into familiar territory. The story seemed to rehash many of the old themes and adventures, it wasn’t particular hard to guess where it was going, but it was a nice return to a universe I’ve previously enjoyed.
Maybe my distance from the originals helped, with their impact watered down over time, but I didn’t find this to be a weak pastiche, rather a nice homage to a classic series.
As for the recording, well Simon Jones does a fantastic job narrating, but the production around the story wasn’t great (the intros and outros were random, duplicated and one of them sounded like it had been recorded in the 50s, on tape).
All in all, a good addition to the Galaxy trilogy, just don’t go in assuming this will be Adams, more Adams-esque.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Flowers for AlgernonBuy NowBuy Now
This is the sort of work that rarely seems to be written these days, and which would probably have been classed as literary fiction (maybe they are written and I just don’t read them).
It’s considered a classic, and the edition I read was released as part of the SF Masterworks series. Although originally released in 1966, if anything it’s more relevant today, in light of more recent advances in medicine, especially gene therapy.
The story is told through progress reports submitted by Charlie Gordon, a patient taking part in an experiment to increase human intelligence, not to reach superhuman levels, but purely to help those with especially low IQs to become ‘normal’ people.
The progress reports, and the story in general, read like a condensed human lifetime. They start with Charlie almost child-like in both knowledge and naivete, rise through the peak of his intellect, and then chart his eventual decline back to a sort of senility.
While technically Science Fiction, it’s a story that focuses so much on the human at its core that it would have wide appeal, yet many people won’t read it purely because of the genre it’s been given.
An interesting and through-provoking read that comes with a warning for the future we’re already starting to meddle in (not that I think we should stop).
Genre: Classics, Science Fiction
Him & MeBuy NowBuy Now
I’m not sure you’d class this as a biography, more a collection of anecdotes from Jack’s lifetime, as told by him and his father. Whitehall senior was an agent, having many famous clients, so there’s plenty of name dropping throughout the tales. Jack’s posh upbringing certainly isn’t played down either.
I’m not sure how it works in the written version, because part of what makes the audiobook is having both of them in the same room, interrupting and commenting on each other’s contributions. They’re quite happy to rip into one another when they mess up or mispronounce.
It makes for an entertaining book full of stories that you’d never believe if they were told in fiction, related by a pair of engaging storytellers.
One criticism would be that the book just seems to finish. A chapter ends, with little summary or sign-off, and then I was listening to the copyright details.
I had the Audible version, which includes some extra content, including a rebuttal from (long-suffering) Hilary Whitehall (Michael’s wife and Jack’s mum). There’s also an additional anecdote from the pair.
It’s not your traditional biography, it doesn’t try to inspire or show how the subject overcame obstacles to reach the lofty heights (there’s barely mention of Jack’s career, and most of that is derogatory). Instead, it’s the story of a family and those escapades every family has.
Short and fun, and definitely worth the audio version.
The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have MissedBuy NowBuy Now
I subscribe to a newsletter called Now I Know, which sends a daily factoid. This book is essentially like taking several years’ worth of those and packing them into one publication (you can actually buy a Now I Know book too).
Filled with anecdotes about the weird minutia of history, grouped together into vaguely related topic categories, the book attempts to capture the everyday oddities, rather than the world-changing events normally documented.
In most cases, the tidbits were fairly interesting, but they were equally banal enough that it was obvious as to why they haven’t made it into more general books on history.
There’s so many of them too. It took me so long to read this (I started in 2012) because I started to tune out halfway through, it became like listening to someone wittering on, the words just washing over me. When I came back to it, I wondered why I had stopped, but it quickly became a slog again.
It would have been better to pick a few of the choicest stories per section and looked at them in more detail, rather than trying to cram in as much as possible. Or perhaps a different delivery method would have been better (a daily newsletter, perhaps?).
Incidentally, Pollard is a writer on the TV show QI, and I did notice several of the anecdotes have come up in the series.
It’s not a bad book, just not very engaging as a straight read. I was only reading a couple at a time too (before bed). If you find yourself stuck on tube platforms or wherever for five minutes at a time, then this would be perfect (on a Kindle or smartphone, for example, for convenience).
Contagious: Why Things Catch OnBuy NowBuy Now
I read somewhere recently that our world is now all about marketing. So this seemed an interesting read, discussing why certain things go viral, while others don’t.
Berger breaks it down into six steps, with one or more required to turn something into a viral hit:
- Social Currency (make people want to share to make themselves look good, or to look/feel like an insider)
- Triggers (prompt or remind people by tying your product to familiar/common things)
- Emotion (something that provokes a strong emotion is more likely to be shared)
- Public (make potential customers aware of who is already using your product)
- Practical Value (something useful is commonly shared)
- Stories (human experience makes people want to share it, but make sure you can’t be left out)
He quotes plenty of examples, many you’ll have heard of as they circled the internet at their peak. It’s a thought -provoking book, a critical look at why people share (backed up with Berger’s own research).
Having said that, I still felt it lacked something. These ingredients, while a great list, don’t think guarantee success in my opinion. There are plenty of examples in the book supporting the author’s claims, but far fewer examples of campaigns that didn’t take off. Ironically, at least one of the examples used early doesn’t fit the topics discussed later.
It will make you look at marketing differently though, plus it’s a nice short read (or listen). If you’re a fan of books like Freakonomics or those by Malcolm Gladwell, I think you’d enjoy this. It doesn’t go particularly deep, it’s more of a skim through the ideas.
Keith Nobbs does such a good job reading it I assumed he was the author, so top marks for delivery.
All-in-all, I’d say this was worth your time. Even if you’re not that bothered about marketing, it’s an interesting look at why some of those YouTube videos you’ve seen took off. As with every book of this type (those offering to tell you the recipe of success), don’t think it guarantees anything though.
WestmarkBuy NowBuy Now
I don’t remember where I picked up the recommendation for this book. It’s certainly not a recent release, originally released in 1982. It’s short and from a writer who was better known for his children’s work.
The length was part of the appeal, I was hoping to hit two books a month in 2013 (one written, one audio), but failed. I figured I could burn through this one to kick off 2014.
And I did get through it reasonably fast, in no small part due to the fact that I enjoyed the characters and the story. The cover reminded me of the old copies of Treasure Island, and it seems to take place in a similar era, without any pirates or ships though. It has a similar ruthlessness to the story, which pulls no punches, with death and murder, foul play and scoundrels aplenty.
I had a couple of small criticisms; one being that some of the plot developments are telegraphed, making them fairly easy to spot. I’d also say, as with a lot of books, the end is over and done very quickly.
Having said that, it was an enjoyable read, with some interesting characters, and it certainly didn’t drag. It’s part of a trilogy, and I’ll be looking for the next part (assuming I can find a copy, these need to be made into digital copies for more people to enjoy).
Off the KUF Volume 1Buy NowBuy Now
Off the KUF is an anthology of short stories produced by members of the Kindle User Forum. I may be slightly biased, because I belong to the forum that produced it. I even have a story in the next volume. I have tried to be objective though.
Short stories and anthologies have generally wandered in the wilderness of publishing. This book shows their virtues though: the stories are short enough to consume in quick bites between busy schedules, and there’s such an eclectic mix there will be something to please any reader.
In fact, aside from new authors to discover, it will probably make you read genres you’d never normally contemplate. Certainly I found a few I wouldn’t have read if I were looking at their description in solitude, but there wasn’t one I didn’t enjoy.
If I’m being particularly picky, I felt a story with a stronger finish could have been last (but maybe that was the point).
Anyway, well worth your time, and money raised goes to keeping the lights on over at the Kindle User Forum as well (which is a great place for reader and writers, not just Kindle users, so drop by).
Series: Off the KUF
11.22.63Buy NowBuy Now
I reckon it took Stephen King to get this book published. Only someone with a name and readership as big as his could get this to presses without some serious changes, because it’s too long and too slow for what most publishers believe ‘modern’ readers want.
Take a look at the bestseller lists and you’ll largely find stories that lurch from one crisis to the next, with barely time to breath in between. They follow the Hollywood trend for cramming the action in.
11.22.63 isn’t like that. It’s the story of one man, Jake Epping, as he goes back to 1958 and lives for five years before he gets to what sells the book: saving Kennedy from assassination. At first I enjoyed this look back at the past, the differences to modern life, and following our protagonist’s life.
About 60% of the way through, my attitude changed. It turned from a nice read/listen into a battle of attrition between me and King. Would I be able to last this out? (The audiobook runs 30 hours! The paperback is about 750 pages!)
I’ve formed the opinion that, once you’ve had a few hits as an author, editors fear to do anything to disturb your work, worried they’ll ruin a potential hit. Maybe they believe the author knows what they’re doing. I’ve seen it with a few books now. This should have had huge chunks cut out of it before it was released.
Jake has to go back a couple of times, he undertakes a ‘trial’ to see if things do change the future. That’s fine, and the initial step back on his mission to save Kennedy is fine too. I could live with a bit of colour, but the point of this book, the bit we’ve paid the money for, is how he does/doesn’t stop the assassination. Just get to that.
Instead, we spend forever watching Jake be a teacher, fall in love, spy on the Oswalds and generally do a ton of things we don’t care about. Then, when Jake returns to the future and sees what his efforts have reaped, the whole lot falls apart again for me.
I haven’t heard the words ‘obdurate’ and ‘harmonize’ used so many times in my life (if there’s not a drinking game on these already, there probably will be, and it’ll likely kill any participants).
The narration by Craig Wasson is superb, but the recording goes a bit weird in places, changing tone to the point that I thought someone else was reading it.
It’s an intriguing idea, and for large parts it’s a great read. If you want to give it a go, my advice would be to jump to the assassination once Jake makes it to Dallas. As soon as he leaves, just stop.
Genre: Science Fiction
Traction CityBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve not read too many short works, though they seem to be on the increase. I happened to stumble across this novella, released for World Book Day in 2011, and obviously snapped it up (being a fan of the series and, frankly, because it was a bargain).
It follows the officers of a police station on the bottom tier of London through a night where they try to kill a stalker, a cyborg warrior, as it preys on people. It’s set before the events of the other Mortal Engines books, with a young Anna Fang making an appearance.
It may be short, but it’s action-packed and the characters are developed quickly, with enough to humanise them away from cookie-cutter stereotypes. While it’s a great advert for the rest of the series, it’s certainly not just a promotional gimmick. Having said that, it’s a cheap, quick way to get into the series if you’ve not come across it before.
I really enjoyed it, and while I could have read more, it finishes neatly and is a completely self-contained story. A perfect little read.
Genre: Science Fiction
Science Matters: Achieving Scientific LiteracyBuy NowBuy Now
I was ready to give this a lower score by the half way point. Up to then I’d listened through a long and pointless introduction, a section of the various US scientific bodies (why is this even included?) and it seemed like the book would focus heavily on physics and chemistry and brush through other subjects.
By the end I had to concede it was a good, broad walk through much of science, both the established theories and the cutting edge developments in a number of fields. It flows fairly seamlessly from topic to topic, as if it’s one huge lecture.
I like to think I already had a fairly good (if a little patchy) understanding of science, but I certainly found myself learning a few new things, not to mention remembering some of the lessons I had forgotten.
One problem was the reading. The audiobook is read by Fred Sanders, who does a good job of delivering the text clearly, but delivers it in such a monotone that I found myself zoning out for entire sections, and largely not caring. It was like listening to a particularly uninspiring teacher drone on.
Overall, it does a good job of doing what it sets out to: providing scientific literacy. If school was a long time ago for you, you never picked up much science or you simply want to brush up, then this should do the job nicely (if not in the most entertaining way).
WoolBuy NowBuy Now
I first stumbled across Hugh Howey when I was researching before taking the plunge into self-publishing. His story, and the story of Wool, is a remarkable one. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I started in, worried what to do if I didn’t like it.
For a while I thought that was going to be the case. The book starts slowly, in terms of action if not drama, and had a lot of navel gazing being done by characters who, ultimately, don’t matter. While the ideas are interesting, the protagonist baton is moved around so much I found it a hard story to get to grips with.
The fact that so many people have stuck through this pays testimony to the characters, writing and story. The book succeeds in spite of this rather than because of it. I read the complete (omnibus) edition, but it was released as five separate works originally. I can only assume the unique world he’s built is what got the original people hooked, or the hints at an underlying conspiracy.
Around half way it starts to pick up though and then it turns into a real page turner, I found myself eyeing the clock to see if I could fit in another chapter before calling it a night. That’s definitely a good sign, even if I was frustrated on occasion by the seemingly endless obstacles they had to overcome.
It’s certainly a detailed, complex and, bizarrely, vast world he’s created, one filled with interesting people who feel very real. There are two more books in the trilogy (plus a whole raft of approved fan fiction) and you can certainly see the possibilities.
The fact that I haven’t rushed to download the next one probably says a lot though. It was a good story, but it didn’t quite strike the right note for me.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Silo Saga
The Undercover EconomistBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve read (or listened to) a number of books on economics, from the more tale-like Freakonomics to the idiot’s guides. The Undercover Economist is different to them and makes the subject more relatable.
The book covers topics like coffee shop locations, how companies get customers to want to pay more, using money to drive businesses to be greener and he even addresses African poverty. It’s a fairly broad spectrum, but largely covered in a way anyone can understand.
The references to economists and their cornerstone theories are related back to the topics at hand, which is useful (and makes it easier to grasp). I’m still not sure I understand externality charges though.
Having said that, you’re taking his word and assuming he’s right, that China really did grow because of this or that Cameron doesn’t for the reasons stated. One thing I have learned from the other books I’ve read is that economics is hard, with so many factors, it’s difficult to determine cause and effect, so difficult few have got more than basic theories right.
The problem is you can write entire series on any one of these topics, detailing the possible reasons for each, and probably spend a lifetime researching them, but very few people would want to read it. So perhaps take what the book states as fact with a pinch of salt and hope the author does know what he’s talking about (much of it passes the common sense test, which I’ve found some books don’t).
All in all an enjoyable and insightful read. Economics is a big subject that impacts much of our daily lives, in fact it has become central to it. While I’m still only scratching the surface, this book did provide a guiding, and thought-provoking, light.
Tales from Development HellBuy NowBuy Now
Most people probably don’t know (and don’t care) what it takes to get a movie made by a Hollywood studio. Even those with a relatively straightforward path to the screen will have faced numerous battles.
Douglas Adams, who experienced the process while getting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made for the screen (unsuccessfully in his lifetime), once described the process as ‘like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.’
In Tales from Development Hell author David Hughes (himself a screenwriter) tackles several long-running sagas, some of which made it to the screen, though rarely in the format they originally started out. Everything from Batman, to Total Recall to Tomb Raider.
Even being familiar with some genesis stories, I hadn’t heard any of these before and it’s an eye-opener for any filmmaker (and certainly any screenwriter, aspiring or otherwise) of just how convoluted a process it can be. The book is well researched, with plenty of quotes and comments from producers, writers and others who worked, at various stages, on the films discussed.
If I have a criticism it’s that some of the explanations drag on, with no real clear idea of development. We end up bogged down in descriptions of the various script versions, or endless finger pointing. By and large they pick up again, but some of the stories could stand to be trimmed down (and perhaps more, shorter works included).
You’ll probably find yourself thinking some of the movies that did make it out could have been so much better if they had stuck with an earlier script, but equally you’ll be glad some of these projects never saw the inside of a cinema.
The book doesn’t require you to be interested in screenwriting or know anything about movie development, what it shows is the process of getting a film made and the various changes and stumbling blocks, from changes requested by an actor, direction changes under a new director, or a project’s collapse after the studio head changes.
Each movie has a story to tell, and not just the one that ends up on screen. Tales from Development Hell provides a look behind the curtain and tries to document the story behind the movie, many of which are very interesting.
Ready Player OneBuy NowBuy Now
It’s always a good sign when I’m keen to get back to a book, or eager to find an excuse to continue listening, which is what happened with Ready Player One. That said, it’s probably not for everyone.
Set in a future where the real world has gone to crap so badly everyone spends most of their time logged into a simulated universe called the OASIS, it follows the hunt for one of the founder’s fortunes through a quest littered with 80s pop culture.
For someone of my age, who was around in the 80s and actually got some of the references, it was a nostalgic look back at movies, music and computer game classics that have been forgotten but which are slowly being revived and rebooted. As such the book probably hit at the perfect time.
If you’re too young to remember the times, old enough to have missed the pop culture fads, or have no experience with gaming, then the book may be a tougher sell, though everything is explained enough you don’t need to know the source material too well.
I found the tasks of the quest itself were often completed very quickly (perhaps to limit stepping into uber geek territory) and the story spent a lot of time on our protagonist’s life where nothing really happens, certainly in the middle of the book.
A few items were scattered in the story, a bit like Q dishing out gadgets to Bond, where I found myself second-guessing when they’d be deployed. Some I got right, but some where still a surprise.
I was salivating at the start of the final section though, when the showdown begins and it all kicks off.
Overall, an entertaining read with a fascinating take on a future that doesn’t feel far-fetched and a includes a great reminder of youth and yesteryear for those of a certain age.
Genre: Science Fiction
Do You Think You’re Clever?Buy NowBuy Now
At certain institutions of higher education, it’s the norm to set weird and wonderful questions to see how your interviewees respond. Partly to test their intelligence and lateral thinking, partly to throw them off balance, and partly, I suspect, to appear superior.
In this book the author takes several examples across a range of disciplines and tries to discern their meaning, then provide an answer.
It leads to some wide and varied discussions, showing how many ways there are to interpret the same question, and often straying a long way from topic, yet all somehow linked back to it.
As a study in how you can approach a question from any number of angles, it’s eye opening, but the author does seem to get a little carried away on a few, leaving the subject for a rant of his own. The answers to some questions are so long they could almost constitute their own book.
At the start I found the open-minded approach interesting and it certainly made me reassess the narrow focus many of us take when posed a question, especially in the unnerving situation of interview. By the latter stages I was finding it hard to focus on the rambling answers and the end was met with relief (indeed, I even forgot to write this review for several weeks).
If you’re due to have an interview at a university (and these questions are apparently being asked by employers more and more as well) then it would be worth a read because I think it’ll change how you answer questions. In fact I think something similar could benefit a lot of students before they leave education so they learn to think, rather than just repeating what they have been taught by rote.
I thought the book could be improved if some of the answers were edited to tighten them up. If that makes length an issue they could simply add more questions.
Not a bad book and I’d recommend reading the first few answers, maybe dipping in and out, but I’m not sure I can recommend the book be read cover to cover in its entirety, it just felt like a slog.
One ShotBuy NowBuy Now
I picked this up because I’d seen Jack Reacher, the film version of this novel, and the plot and characters interested me enough to see what the source material was like. As such, I had a vision of the novel before I started reading it, which, with hindsight, may not have been a good idea.
I found that, in the same way people who love the book and go see the movie find it disappointing, the novel didn’t live up to expectations. Normally you expect the book to be the better version, because it has so much more time to spend developing the plot and characters.
That stood against it here, with the film using cleaner and far more succinct ways to deliver information. It left the novel feeling like there were a bunch of unnecessary characters and discoveries, although some of the latter felt less organic, seemingly relying on Reacher’s intuition far more than anything else.
One big difference between the book and the film is that Reacher is supposed to be a big guy, standing around 6’5″, but is played by Tom Cruise, not a man known for his height. In the movie, with the exception of perhaps one scene, that didn’t really matter, and Cruise managed to keep the angel of vengeance feeling the character portrays.
I didn’t dislike the book, it’s action-packed and far more brutal than the film, but it didn’t really click. I have a few more Reacher novels to read (the benefits of knowing someone who has read the lot), so will endeavour to give the series another go. Maybe if I haven’t already seen a version of the story they’ll be better.
Series: Jack Reacher
Whoops!: Why everyone owes everyone and no one can payBuy NowBuy Now
Lanchester sets out to describe what caused the collapse of the global economy in 2008, by looking at the events that led up to the collapse, its causes, repercussions and suggestions for how we should proceed.
I’ve read a few articles on the subject, even a few economics books that touch on it, but this is a fantastic break down of just what went wrong, how and why. From the systematic deregulation of the banking sector (the laissez-faire approach), the development of new, unregulated financial products, the supposed spreading of risk and the complete naivety and stupidity of a lot of clever people.
Ironically, it left with me with a better understanding of how the financial markets work, more-so than the the books on economics I’d previously read.
If you weren’t angry about the way the financial system has been manipulated, and just what the banks have got away with, before you started reading this book, you certainly will be by the end.
The topics often cover things the heads of the largest financial institutions themselves have admitted they don’t understand, yet the author does a good job of tying everything back to personal finances to make it easier to comprehend for those of us who haven’t got PhD’s in mathematics.
I’m not sure I necessarily agree with the reasoning about how the lack of an antagonistic economic/political system since the demise of the Soviet Union was the reason we took the breaks off the banking sector. History has long shown that companies will get away with whatever they can, legal or otherwise.
If you wish to know more about the collapse I’d highly recommend it, but be warned that it may raise your blood pressure.
Déjà VuBuy NowBuy Now
I should probably start by confessing that I picked this up for free due to a generous promotion by the author.
The story follows a kommissarin (detective) from a European police agency as she tracks down an English professor who is on the run, suspected of blowing up a research facility (for the second time) and killing an ex-colleague.
The book contains lots of future tech, including submersive realities, decanted minds, the sort of personal digital assistants we all dream of and time travel.
All good stuff, but I found the opening chapters were written in a very staccato style–short sentences that didn’t seem to flow together–making it hard to get into a rhythm. After a few chapters it found its feet and the story began to draw me in.
The characters were good, they’re well-rounded and believable, and the story is packed with action and rarely dawdles.
The problem was that I got to the end and thought I had missed the point, that I had somehow blundered past the big reveal where we find out the Earth-shattering reason for everything and learn where our protagonist comes from and why she’s chasing the man she is.
I was so convinced I missed it that I went back ten chapters (or so) and read it again, only to conclude I hadn’t missed it, it just wasn’t there.
I didn’t see any reason not to let the antagonist do what he was trying to do, which took away the reason for all the rushing around (I’m still half-wondering if I’ve missed something). It was as if the backbone of the story, its very heart, was missing.
I didn’t find it a particularly easy book to read, it makes you work to keep up with what’s going on, some of which comes down to the breakneck pace.
The ideas were intriguing enough that I’ll probably give the second book, Flashback, a try (which I also managed to download for free), but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Saskia Brandt Series
The Night CircusBuy NowBuy Now
This was another one of those books I picked up due to a groundswell of support, it seemed to be everywhere I went. I will confess that the beauty of the cover didn’t hurt.
Set in the Victorian period, it tells the story of two contestants in a ‘game.’ It’s a game that starts when they’re barely old enough to understand and continues throughout their lives. For much of the book the nature of the game itself is a mystery, as are many of the characters.
I’d liken it to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, in that the intriguing world is enough to draw you in at the start, the story seems to plateau and go nowhere for long periods in the middle and finally there’s some urgency to reach a conclusion near the end.
The writing, as with Jonathan Strange, is beautiful, in fact moreso. Morgenstern describes a wonderful world in florid detail, some of which is as rich and delicious as the finest chocolate cake, velvety smooth and dark. She describes constructions unlike anything I’ve ever read (heard) before.
The problem is she seems to enjoy reveling in them too much. There are numerous scenes that exist purely so she can tantalise you with yet another intricate invention, serving no other purpose.
While the scenery is beautifully drawn, the characters, while well-rounded, didn’t captivate me, which makes the whole story a hard sell. Like the main character’s instructors, most of the cast were distant and unrelatable, though you could argue it would have been hard to empathise with their situation.
It wasn’t helped by the narrative hopping about in time, which I found hard to follow on occasion (non-linear stories seem harder to keep track of when you’re listening to an audiobook).
Towards the end I was just hoping for it to end, counting down the seconds I had left to listen to, instead of caring about what happened, which is obviously a bad sign.
Imaginative and evocative, even magical in places, but in the end I found it lacking something: heart.
QuirkologyBuy NowBuy Now
This was a present off my wishlist one Christmas or birthday and for some unknown reason it has sat, unread, on my bedside table for a number of years, which is shame as I really enjoyed it.
It’s essentially a book about psychology that focuses on trends and traits that affect is in our everyday lives.
The book is loosely grouped by subject into six sections, covering topics such as why some people fib about their date of birth, how we identify lies, why we believe in superstitions, what leads us to believe in ghosts, our decision-making, humour and generosity.
While the author discusses a number of his own studies in detail he also references a great many works of other psychologists to support or highlight various ideas.
Maybe I’ve been infected by Bad Science, but I struggled to believe you could ‘control’ adequately to prove many of these claims and there seemed to be very little discussion of how the data, usually collected via a survey, took into consideration people lie on them.
I’d question some of the other methodologies too, such as the study (not conducted by the author) on the ‘pace’ of a city, and therefore the likely stress and strain levels, based on people’s walking speed. The author did re-conduct the experiment to show how the ‘pace’ has changed, but failed to point out that there may be a simple answer for the fastest walkers not improving: the physical limits of the human body. Nor did it mention that the ‘Type A’ people who typically live in these cities may not be affected by stress or strain but any of a number of other factors (diet, for example).
Having said that, it does make you think and certainly contains plenty of noteworthy topics, even if you take issue with the conclusions. Well worth a read.
Remember, RememberBuy NowBuy Now
This is very similar to the previously reviewed Divorced, Beheaded, Died and comes with a similar subtitle (The History of Britain in Bite-Sized Chunks). In fact they overlap considerably, as this book covers each of the monarchs (so you probably don’t need to buy both).
Unlike the other book, this one provided no new insights into British history for me, simply covering off the well-known events. As is usual with history books of this type (it seems), there is a heavy weighting on recent history (as much time is spent on World War II as on the centuries before it).
Focusing on monarchs and a few key events, it does also include some of the political and philosophical shifts that have sculpted history, but it doesn’t mention any of the significant inventions that have often had far wider reaching consequences.
I doubt anyone who has had a school history lesson will find many insights here, so I’m unsure what the target market was. I think summarising the entire of British history was too much to cover even in ‘bite-sized chunks’ as you’re only ever paying lip service to a topic and it would be better to release books focused on specific subjects instead.
I’d suggest this is more for children as an easy way to pick up a brief understanding of British history rather than anyone with a serious interest in it (and you’re unlikely to have forgotten most of it).
Divorced, Beheaded, DiedBuy NowBuy Now
The sub-heading for this book is: The History of Britain’s Kings and Queens in Bite-Sized Chunks. That’s a pretty accurate description. Some of the biographies are less even than that, only partly due to a lack of any surviving/reliable knowledge of the person (some of our leaders are considered myths rather than real people, such as Arthur). That means the book is heavily weighted toward the more famous and more recent monarchs.
Ironically, you probably want the reverse as the big names (Alfred, Harold, William, Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Victoria, etc) are those you’re more likely to have encountered elsewhere and had much more written about them.
Having said that, if all you want is a chronological list of monarchs and who they were then this is ideal and the succinct nature means the book doesn’t drag (entire books have been written on some of these people, but you’ll get no more than a few paragraphs here).
It does have some weird repetitions, where it would tell you about a king or queen and mention the acts of a subsequent monarch, only to say the exact same things when detailing that king or queen a few sentences later.
The audiobook, while read perfectly well, did have some occasional glitches, leaving me wondering if I’d missed a word or perhaps even jumped a sentence.
Worth noting that it covers not just England, but also the rulers of Scotland and Wales.
Despite the abbreviated details, I did learn some things, such as the name of Britain’s first king: Brutus. He’s considered legend, supposedly coming from Troy and being a descendant of Aeneas, the founder of Rome. It’s even claimed his name is where the word Britain comes from.
Another aspect the book highlights is the inter-connected nature of the European states, with people and royal families swapping between them constantly.
The book’s great if you want to understand the royal line a bit better and find out who ruled between the landmark moments and monarchs of British history, it’s like a Cliff’s Notes version. That does make it quick to read and you won’t get bogged down, but this would only be a jumping off point. Ideal for those who get bored by history or by books which explore the endless minutiae of it.
Ptolemy’s GateBuy NowBuy Now
The fact that I’ve made it to the third in the series says a lot about how good it is. I’m not one for sticking with an author on blind faith or because of past glories.
Three years on from the events of The Golem’s Eye and we find England besieged on all sides and attacked from within by enemies of various sorts. Despite the empire’s fate teetering on a knife edge, the Prime Minister seems less capable to lead them than ever. Even our protagonist, John Mandrake, once such a stalwart of the government, seems to be having doubts, and not just because of the war.
This is another fascinating adventure, packed with Bartimaeus’ wry wit and characters who seem to be fighting their own demons. It’s the sort of book you can’t wait to get back to when you’re forced to put it down (or switch it off).
Having said that, I did see one of the big twists coming, telegraphed from the previous book. I didn’t see the one which follows it though. As great as the story is, there are times when it’s not perfect.
I found myself wanting Mandrake or Bartimaeus to stand up and unleash some vast power, even when they have the chance it never seems to work out that way. To be fair, it’s a mark of the series, it never boils over into the sort of heroic finale that is generally the norm. Perhaps that’s something which adds to the richness and depth of the characters, and the story; they’re never given an easy way out.
It’s also packed with wistful remorse, one eye always on the past, which does take away from some of the immediate action, dulling some of the effect.
As with the previous books in the series it’s beautifully read by Steven Pacey, he does a good job of bringing the characters to life with the simplest change of his voice.
The quality hasn’t dropped and this is as highly recommended as the rest of the series.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: Bartimaeus Trilogy
Dot RobotBuy NowBuy Now
Author Jason Bradbury is best know for his role as a presenter on The Gadget Show and he certainly brings his experience of technology to Dot Robot.
Aside from technology, the book’s also packed with action. That’s a blessing and a curse, because we don’t dwell on anything for too long (this isn’t a book with a lot of depth) but it also leaves you racing along trying to keep up.
Credit has to go to the concept, most young adult books have to figure a way to get the kids away from adult supervision. Bradbury instead uses remote tech, which means the characters can save the world from the comfort of their bedroom and still manage a few chores.
The problem I found was that I didn’t empathise with the characters, certainly not until lives were on the line. Maybe that was to do with the characters themselves, their traits certainly aren’t mainstream and it’s unlikely you went to school with anyone like them (or dreamed of being someone like them).
The key moment in the plot seems a little contrived (and not too hard to guess) and everything seems to go a little too smoothly, with any obstacle quickly overcome.
The book sits firmly in the market for action novels aimed at a young audience. The likes of Alex Rider, Young Bond, Agent Cody Banks, Spy Kids and Kim Possible are the market this is aimed at. The tech element also drew parallels with Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, but without the latter’s punch.
Not a bad book, but it needed another layer for me, as any emotional aspects were quickly brushed away, even the action flashed by and all you’re really left with is piles of tech being thrown at you.
Genre: Young Adult
What You Need to Know About EconomicsBuy NowBuy Now
Economics is a subject which has become a lot more topical since the credit crunch, and yet another I know the barest about. So this seemed an ideal book to introduce me to the concepts and ideas. Sadly, that was not the case.
There were a few new terms and names, but overall I didn’t think it added much to the explanations found in many news articles. The authors of some of the leading theories are mentioned and quickly dismissed as their theories have either been superseded or are controversial.
In fact, I quickly got the impression that William Goldman’s expression ‘Nobody knows anything’ (aimed at the movie industry) applied perfectly well to economics and that it’s more about the psychology of how people react than anything else.
It’s easy to tell this was a book best consumed in printed form and that little work had been done to adapt it for listeners. For example, the reading of the (often long) URLs for sources and extra information was pointless in an audiobook. Having said that, Colin Mace narrates clearly.
Not really a guide for dummies or a deep enough look at economics, this seems to fall in between and, as such, doesn’t do the job of either.
Moon Over SohoBuy NowBuy Now
I largely enjoyed the first book in this series, at least enough to give this book a go, but for all the bits of this I enjoyed (the setting, the police work, the new take on a number of fantasy tropes) there were plenty that just didn’t sit well.
Aaronovitch seems to enjoy looking at the darker side of fantasy elements, merging the gritty, grimy real-world of policing with things we’re not used to seeing in a modern setting. It’s a refreshing style but it’s sometimes hard to palate things that may not phase your typical copper, but from which the general public are shielded.
To balance this he uses a dry wit that did cause me to laugh out loud on occasion, but there isn’t enough to counter-balance the sour deeds, so overall the story is one big downer.
The book also felt a little light on plot, with a number of scenes that didn’t seem serve any purpose in the narrative development.
As for the recording, while the reading by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is again excellent, the cheesy jazz riff between chapters (and the decision to read the chapter names) didn’t do anything for me.
By the end I was just waiting for it to finish. Not sure I’m going to bother with the next book in the series.
Series: Rivers of London
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval EnglandBuy NowBuy Now
We tend to focus on the big events and the big names in history but outside of that very little else is mentioned and there’s usually nothing to give you a sense of what the world was like for people day-to-day. This book tries to put that right for medieval England (in this case the 14th Century).
I found it an interesting look back and a useful insight to the period, it certainly doesn’t romanticise it as knights and damsels. Instead it looks at the three roles of society: those who pray, those who fight and those who feed. It looks at everything from a typical day, to the food they ate, to the clothes and social etiquette of the time.
It also pulls out some interesting facts from the period. Something I didn’t know before was the origin of o’clock for example (as in 10 o’clock) — apparently we used multiple ways to tell the time, including the sun, there were very few clocks, so you had to specify the time method and say ’10 of the clock’ which has simply been shortened to o’clock.
Jonathan Keeble does a good job reading, proving clear and concise and easy to listen to.
It was an interesting and thorough look through the events of the century and does a lot to dispel many of the myths we grow up with regarding the period, not least our own feeling of superiority. I’m not sure I could have survived, just glad my ancestors did.
If you have an interest in history, especially regarding the period, and would like a broad introduction to the customs and conditions then this is well worth a look.
Jonathan Strange and Mr NorrellBuy NowBuy Now
It was an epic struggle, a battle that required dedication and willpower. I’m not talking about the book, but the journey to finishing it. I started reading it some years ago, but got to around the mid-point and decided to go read some other things. I picked it up again at least a couple of years later and decided I was going to finish it. Relief was the overwhelming emotion on completion.
The book has garnered plenty of literary praise, with good reason. It’s been compared to Austen and Dickens (at least) and I could certainly see similarities, with the story sharing not only Dickens’ dark and grimy feel, but the large landscape and backstory about the characters, all told as they go about their daily lives.
Therein lies the rub. The version I read was over 1,000 pages, and while it started well, and ended with a degree of urgency (and rather quickly) it spends a huge amount of time just meandering through the landscape with no real development. The characters simply float along, going about their lives, but with no real purpose, something we’re not used to in modern stories; there’s no sense of purpose.
Added to this is a distance from the characters. They rarely seemed to engage me (at least until the end) and the fates that befall many of them, or they are made to endure, left me frustrated. Whether that distance is designed to enhance the Victorian feel of the novel I’m not sure, but no character really garners your empathy.
Having said all that, the book is filled with wonderful ideas, a hugely detailed world, magic that seems grounded far more in realism than most, and characters who are rarely walking stereotypes. In spite of the copious footnotes that have been crammed in, you still feel the author has much more material covering the entire history of English magic that didn’t make it (not for want to trying).
I can see why it receives such praise, but the lack of any real plot motivation, any end goal for much of the novel, left me wondering why the book couldn’t have been edited down to half the length. It would have served to speed up the story and provide some momentum, instead it spends much of the middle like a voyage in the doldrums; lots of observation, no real movement.
If you have the time to climb into a world it’s worth a look, if you prefer something with a driving force, a page turner, this is not for you.
The Golem’s EyeBuy NowBuy Now
I was a big fan of the first in the trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand, and only held off buying this one because I worried that with one of the protagonists getting older I wasn’t sure it could be as good a book. I didn’t need to fear.
Told from the viewpoints of three characters: Nathaniel/John Mandrake, a young wizard in a prominent government position, trying to catch the resistance, and save his own skin; Kitty, a member of the resistance, trying to bring down the magicians; and Bartimaeus, Nathaniel’s quick-thinking, sarcastic djinni (demon).
The other two may propel the story but the star is undoubtedly Bartimaeus, whose rye comments and banter lift what could have been an overly dark story. The conflict between demons and magicians is played out between the two main characters, always providing entertaining tension.
They bundle from one action-packed sequence to the next, escaping by the slenderest of margins. In amongst the action is a heart though, the characters each having to fight for what they want and each having to do what must be done, regardless of whether they like it or not. None of them is a saint, none without their flaws.
Making Nathaniel’s character likable enough, yet still obviously detestable, is a thin line that is carefully negotiated, all the while poking fun at authority figures who want to appear high and mighty, but rarely are.
Praise must also go to the reader, Steven Pacey, who adds much to the characters with his subtle change of voice.
It was an exciting, excellent story packed with enough action and character to make you wish it’d never end. Luckily there’s another book in the series.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: Bartimaeus Trilogy
Alex’s Adventures in NumberlandBuy NowBuy Now
Hunting for the next book to listen to around the house I decided to go back to non-fiction and try and find a topic to expand my knowledge of a weak area. Maths certainly counts as one of my weaker subjects. I can get by, obviously, but I haven’t done things like quadratic equations since school, let alone probability, geometry or much else come to think of it.
Adventures in Numberland was a bit odd then, less a book exploring in greater depths of mathematics, more a series of chapters like TV documentaries where the author talks of meeting people who do unusual things with numbers, such as the popularity of abacuses in Japan, or discusses significant historical developments, such as the invention of zero (by the Indians, no less).
Most of the book deals with abstract concepts, therefore, which work well, but it does stray into computations which don’t really work too well in audiobook form and I assume work much better when you can see the sums and shapes on the page in front of you (though that could be my lack of ability to envisage and hold these calculations in my head).
I will confess that I lost interest in some of the topics at various points, the better ones are tied to the real world, rather than simple ideas that may or may not have revolutionised the subject.
The book is read by the author himself and he does a good job, showing obvious enthusiasm for his subject.
One criticism is that it seems to end very abruptly, with no conclusion or summation, it just reaches the end of the last topic and… finishes (it looks like the audiobook is missing the final chapter).
All in all a good book with some interesting topics. If you’re a fan of Louis Theroux’s documentaries or Bill Bryson’s more recent work, I’d say it was worth a look.
The Fear IndexBuy NowBuy Now
Stepping into the world of hedge funds, the lead character, Alex Hoffmann, co-owns a very successful fund which uses a clever algorithm that tracks human emotions. He and his partner are about to close another record round of funding, everything looks rosy and then his world falls apart.
While Alex feels like he’s going mad and tries to get to the bottom of the events that threaten to overwhelm him, we learn more about his past and the technical aspects that made their hedge fund so successful.
I’ve been a fan of Harris for a while, some of his earlier books are amongst my favourite reads, but his more recent work, focusing on the present day, seem to be more about his political views or punishing perceived injustices and they haven’t really hit the spot. His best-known work is historical fiction, even alternative history, which seems to be where his strength lies.
To be honest, I felt the ending of this book was so obvious I had picked it up from well before halfway, which limited the appeal a bit, I kept going, expecting some sort of twist that never came. Even then there were some gaping holes that raised questions.
I didn’t really engage with any of the characters. Harris’ obvious disdain for investment banking (mirroring that of the rest of the world in the current climate) could be felt throughout and led to none of the characters being sympathetic, even those who weren’t. Many of his characters have been fairly dirty and squalid members of society, but the main characters always had a good core. I didn’t find that here.
One highlight was the reading, by Christian Rodska, which was excellent and did well to try and bring personalities to often flat characters.
Not a bad book, with some interesting ideas, but largely it didn’t hit enough solid notes to let it ring home for me.
EmergencyBuy NowBuy Now
The sub-title for the book is One Man’s Story of a Dangerous World and how to Stay Alive in it, which is a fair summation. Covering several years, journalist and author Neil Strauss documents his rising anxiety about the state of the world, feeling its collapse is imminent, and his preparations to survive the aftermath; including applying for a second passport, storing money out of reach of the government, learning how to survive in the woods using only a knife and being taught how to shoot a gun, ride a motorbike and find his own food. In the current climate it sounds a reasonable idea.
The book starts back before Y2K with Strauss talking to some of the survivalists who believed the end of the millennium would being about the end of the world. We all survived it, but since then the threats have come thick and fast — largely fuelled by the media — from the banking collapse, to terrorism, to the growing threat of nuclear proliferation. It was strange how some of the thinking chimed with comments in Civilization about how historic civilizations have risen and then collapsed.
Strauss is far from an advocate for either camp, seemingly swaying along the dividing line between hard-line survivalists and those who view them as crackpots. It leads to a better, more open discussion about some of their views and skills. Even Strauss seems unable to believe he’s siding with some of the people he meets. The book certainly isn’t about poking fun at hillbillys, but while it offers a sometimes grim look at the world.
Having said that, the book certainly isn’t a doom-sayer’s bible of how to hide in the mountains with a lot of guns. Instead, it covers a vast array of skills, techniques and approaches that provide life skills rather than a ‘batten down the hatches’ agenda. Far from a negative look at the world, the book shows just how many people are prepared to help one another, which should is reassuring.
The book finishes with Strauss deciding that WTSHTF (from the book, I’ll say the last three letters stand for ‘hits the fan’) he’d rather stay and use his newly learnt skills to lend a hand (not just because he’s developed a big support network that will be important).
As the sub-title suggests, the book provides one man’s view of the fears we seem to face and how they affect society while providing a look at the skills and techniques that may help should society fail. It’s interesting and entertaining and well worth a read even if you don’t plan to implement any of the preparations.
Civilization: The West and the RestBuy NowBuy Now
It’s fairly undisputed the West has led the world in practically everything for as long as anyone can remember, but as we approach a time when other world powers appear to be rising to threaten that dominance, Ferguson looks back at why the West has been so successful.
It wasn’t always the case with the likes of the Middle East, Byzantine, India and China being significantly advanced cultures at times when Europe was busy fighting amongst itself. So what led to our rise in dominance? Well Civilization lays out six ‘killer apps’ (his terminology) that Ferguson believes paved the path to our success, things which are now being copied by the others to reach ever greater status on the world stage.
The ‘apps’ he states are: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.
The book covers a vast amount of history, focusing in on certain time periods, events and discoveries to help highlight his points. The breadth of information covered and the detail is breathtaking, each period or subject could easily cover its own book.
Something I think Ferguson missed was the impact war had on society. He mentions the competition wars provided, which drove innovation in science and medicine, but he fails to point out that WWI had an impact on education (when it was found how few soldiers could write it spurred the ‘Three Rs’ to be adopted), or women’s suffrage as they were suddenly shown the freedoms men enjoyed as they worked for the war effort. The same happened after WWII with changes in the status of single and working women.
He also fails to mention things like how wars and pandemics often switched the power from the landed classes to the working class as the labour pool was reduced so drastically those who were left could demand higher wages and better conditions with more freedoms.
Having said that, the discussion is wide and aside from covering how civilization developed and changed I also found myself learning more than a few nuggets of history I hadn’t previously been aware of. I’m not sure we can ever truly say what led to the dominance of the West, it’s too big a subject spread over too vast a timeline to distill down, but I found the book very interesting and a great listen.
Ferguson reads the book himself, and reads it well, investing energy that some professional readers seem to lack. One thing that did bug me after a while were the quotes from various sources, some of which are very long. They’re read in different voices and seem to drag on.
Overall, I’d certainly recommend it.
StardustBuy NowBuy Now
I saw the film version of Stardust before I read the book. Maybe that was the problem. The film is a massive departure from the novel, I can see why they made the changes (in fact, I’m not sure I’d have seen movie potential in the book if I’d read it cold). I picked it from my to-be-read pile partly because it was small (so I thought quick to read — it was) and partly because it had a reputation.
That’s not to say the book wasn’t interesting. As I said, perhaps seeing the film had spoiled much of the surprise (and the film certainly didn’t get it all right, it adds many elements, some of which really weren’t great). The novel has an Old World feel about, I wasn’t surprised to find a quote from and mention of Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell — which has a similar vibe — on the cover and inside. It does feel like something more in keeping with the time the book conveys; Victorian England.
While the film rightly brings the romance between the star and Tristran to the front, amps up the nastiness of the baddies and increases both the pace and urgency, the book doesn’t seem to have these, at once moving at a stately pace yet also skipping by characters and adventures with barely a mention.
Where the book does prosper is in the interesting characters they had to leave out of the film, who are a strange ragtag of bizarre creatures who all seem to see the hapless Tristran right. They seem to be passed on and by all too quickly though.
It’s not that I disliked the book, I just didn’t find it particularly thrilling and engaging and it seems to finish rather more with a whimper than a bang. Imaginative and detailed yes, compelling, not so much.
BoffinologyBuy NowBuy Now
I’m a fan of the series QI and Pollard works on the show, you can see the similarities in the book, where interesting facts have been trawled from history and presented in a series of bite-sized chunks. I’ve been slowly working my way through one of Pollard’s other books: The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed, which is very similar, but focuses on more general history.
Boffinology focuses on ‘the real stories behind our greatest scientific discoveries.’ I love books about science but they can be very dry and stuffy, which is why I’m a big fan of the books like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys. Unlike those books, Boffinology reads more like a series of weekly newspaper columns that have been compiled into a book. As such it’s great for dipping in and out of, reading the odd anecdote (which is more what they are, they’re not long enough to be stories) before putting it down.
It’s not so great if you just want to sit down and read the book. Because there’s no narrative and because each story is so short, it feels very disjointed. Likewise, while the subject matter is loosely organised into sections, no story has any real link to the one that precedes or follows it.
As for the subjects themselves, well some are interesting, highlighting the bizarre nature of scientific discovery, from random luck and pure chance to the darker aspects of experimenting on cadavers, strangers, loved ones and even oneself. In many cases though, the reason these have often been lost in the annals of history is because they just weren’t that interesting or important.
Having said that, the range of topics mean that for every story such as Einstein being asked if he would like to be President of Israel (exactly what has that got to do with scientific discovery?) I found something interesting, such as Sir Issac Newton’s time in the Royal Mint (again, exactly what that has to do with scientific discovery I don’t know). Then you have things like the invention of the steam engine, for which so many people could have claim it’s hard to say who actually invented it and shows how history gets mangled. Perhaps the book had better be titled as ‘lesser known stories and history of famous scientists or inventions.’ A bit less bombastic perhaps.
Anyway, not a bad read, a bit dry and very bitty, but as I said enough material and topics covered that you’re bound to find something interesting. Perhaps better for commuters where the short chunks work well if you only have limited reading periods.
Rivers of LondonBuy NowBuy Now
I almost didn’t buy this book. The name and cover don’t really imply this is a crime thriller come urban fantasy, I was imagining something more like The Bridges of Madison County with a name like that. Goes to show how important a good title and cover can be.
Anyway, after finally reading the description of the book, I took the plunge. Initially it was a thrill, I’m not sure if that’s because the last audiobook I’d been listening to was Bad Science. It was nice to hear some humour and be pulled into a plot with interesting characters and an interesting premise.
The protagonist, Peter Grant, is a copper in the Metropolitan Police, newly finished his probation he looks destined to be assigned to the Case Progression Unit, where ‘they do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to.’ That is until, Peter talks to a ghost while keeping an eye on a crime scene. This brings him into contact with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a wizard who seems to be the only member of the semi-secret paranormal division of the Met. The story then follows them as they investigate a murderer, seemingly from beyond the grave and Peter is plunged into a world filled with magic and where rivers aren’t just flowing bodies of water, but Gods and Goddesses with magical powers.
It was a nice thrill ride through the first half, but for some reason I felt it started to die away in the second half. I’m not sure if that was down to the gruesome nature of the crimes, the spiraling and confusing plot, or the fact that it suddenly got so serious. I did like the humour and the insights into being an actual copper (they sounded realistic to me) which added some gritty realism and seemed to anchor the story in reality a bit more.
I listened to the audiobook and special mention has to go to the reader, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who does a wonderful job not just of telling the narrative, but bring the characters to life. There is no stilted, formal reading, no silly voices, just enough changes in his voice or delivery to allow you to follow each character and get a feel for them as individuals, in addition to the writing.
All in all I enjoyed the book, and will be digging out the sequel (Moon Over Soho).
Series: Rivers of London
Bad ScienceBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve had the paperback of this for some time, but never got around to more than the first few pages (I seem to start a lot of books which now lay abandoned around the house) and so bought it as an audiobook. Even then getting through it seemed to take a long time.
I believe in Goldacre’s aim, which is to highlight the poor reporting of science stories in the media and draw attention to the lack of evidence behind many of the claims made by supposed ‘health professionals’ and the media alike (who are too often taken in by these ‘health professionals’). It’s a noble aim that has been carried out in his column for The Guardian and he has a whole website dedicated to debunking quackery.
This book, though, may not be his finest hour. While it starts off amusing (and informative) enough (and not a little Dave Gormanesque in style) it descends into what seems like non-stop-ranting about some of Goldacre’s pet hates, which include everything from homeopathy, to nutritionists (a non-restricted term, anyone can claim to be one), to Brain Gym, via MRSA and MMR and includes a couple of chapters on people such as Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford (I have left off their titles as Goldacre points out they don’t really warrant them, Goldacre’s dead cat has some qualifications in common with McKeith, for example).
In the end it seems to drop into repetitive lambasting that highlights the media is lazy, doesn’t do any fact checking and is quite willing to print any press release they’re handed, doubly so if it provides a juicy headline. He points out how media savvy ‘experts’ and companies play the game to get us to believe them, because once it’s in the press, we all seem to believe it. In short, it’s a book that could have done with a lot more editing.
What he doesn’t do, however, is provide you with an easy way to defend yourself against the sort of rubbish the media spouts when it comes to science. Most of his research to disprove the claims involved what sounds like a lot of digging through medical journals and papers and interviews. Most of us can’t manage that when scanning an article at lunch or hearing a news story on the radio while eating our breakfast. I’m still not sure about the various control-grouped, placebo-tested, randomised methods needed to produce statistically significant results (or how to figure that out from raw data).
What he doesn’t seem to be doing is calling for legislation that any scientific claims need to be backed up with evidence. I would say we could use something like the Advertising Standard Agency, but as there already is a Press Complaints Commission, which should be responsible for this, self-regulation clearly isn’t working!
It’s not a total waste, however, it definitely has made me more critical when reading/watching/hearing a science-related story. I’m now looking for any signs of supporting evidence and I’ve pretty much adopted the stance of disbelief until further proven. But then I was fairly switched on before, so I wasn’t the hardest sell. How do you convince the millions of others who do still believe the press?
As I said, due to the repetition and endless soap-boxing, the book just seems to drag. Maybe I could suggest a ‘lite’ version. Cut it down to probably 25% of the size, add in some more pictures and I think the book would be able to reach a wider audience (how about a kids version?) and therefore have a greater impact. Otherwise, while a thoughtful read, you can probably abandon it after three or four chapters and not really miss much. If you decide to stay the distance, be prepared for a monotonous affair.
SnuffBuy NowBuy Now
I have to confess that I didn’t ‘get’ Pratchett’s books when I picked up my first one. I started with the first book, The Colour of Magic, and it was a poor choice (not his best by a long way). Recommendations for them kept turning up though, so I finally gave another one a go, it was Guards! Guards! and boy was it good.
In Snuff, we’re back on the trail of Commander Vimes, this time having a holiday at his country residence, when he stumbles across smuggling, slaughter and goblin-trafficking. Goblins have long been thought of more as vermin than people, but they’re a ‘sapient’ species who need Vimes’ help, and the protection of the Law. Vimes’ Law.
Vimes, along with the nearest thing he can find to a copper in the district, uncover a slave operation rounding up and trading goblins to plantations overseas. With powerful and evil men ranged against him, Vimes must outwit them once again and bring justice to those who need it.
Some people may write off the Discworld books (indeed Pratchett’s books in general) as simply Fantasy books, but they are so much more. They’re social commentary wrapped in satire; part philosophy, part farce. That’s what makes them so great. Every book is a multi-layered gem that draws on numerous facets of modern society, softening sometimes biting insight with humour and they don’t shy away from tackling tough subjects.
As ever, the book is fast-paced, action-packed and filled with laughs. Vimes is a wonderful character and his sense of purpose guides you through the narrative, helped along by an endearing cast of support characters.
If I had one criticism, it would be the cameos by all of the Watch characters who have built up over the books, either through a desire to appease fans, or a degree of nostalgia. In fact, the whole book had a worrying feel of closure. As much as I don’t want them to end, there was the feeling of a a movie too far, like Indiana Jones coming back in the forth instalment.
It doesn’t detract from the story though, so perhaps we can forgive him. I haven’t read a bad Pratchett book for years and never a bad Guards book, they’re always awesome and Snuff won’t disappoint.
The Evolutionary VoidBuy NowBuy Now
I’m a long-time reader of Hamilton’s books, just look at the reviews on this site, so it’s fair to say I enjoy his works and I’ve followed him through various space operas as well as his stand along works. I’ve enjoyed the other books in this trilogy, but I felt they were lacking something compared to his previous series. This being the finale, I was expecting big things, but that’s not what was delivered.
The story, once more split between the world inside the void and the universe outside it, moves very slowly and most of the characters simply spend the book rushing here and there, spending more time in transit, searching or thinking about things than actually doing anything and there’s little conflict, physical or otherwise. When you get big master strokes such as the barrier around Earth going up, or the Deterrence Fleet being deployed they just seem to be left hanging, with no real purpose in the bigger picture.
The sections with Edeard inside the void didn’t seem to have any purpose either, there was no real character development and when he did meet a strong antagonist, something I was hoping he would be able to get his teeth into, he simply resets the whole thing and the tension is pointlessly dismissed. The battle with the Cat is likewise over before it really begins on the outside with another formidable adversary simply wiped aside.
Worse though, is the ending. It passes by so subtly I had to go back and read it again to check I hadn’t missed anything. After all those pages and all that maneuvering I was expecting fireworks, a real battle for survival with human evolution on one side and the possible destruction of the galaxy on the other. What I got was a damp squib.
As usual the many strands of the story are handled well by Hamilton, though his characters seem to spend a lot of time navel-gazing with little development, some make little more than cameos. Within the whole there are a few interesting stories or moments. Araminta’s running and subsequent rise, Gore making more of an appearance, but not enough to lift the tedium. I spent the entire book waiting for something to happen, believing it was just around the corner, a few more pages, but it never came.
If you’re looking for a grand spectacle with a big finish, you’ll be sadly disappointed.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Void Trilogy
Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt YouBuy NowBuy Now
Apparently Richard Feynman (a noted physicist who received a Nobel Prize) said: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” I quote that because, even after listening to this book, I don’t fully understand all the principles and theories. This was another audiobook, picked with the intention of trying to get a better understanding of a complex topic.
It succeeded in as much as I know more about the subject than I did before I listened to the book, but the quote from Feynman does at least provide me with some comfort. Mind you, I learnt enough to understand why the recent discovery of neutrinos that appear to have travelled faster than light has grabbed so many headlines, and what it could mean for quantum theory. So maybe nobody understands the laws of quantum physics (or, more likely, an explanation for how these particles got to their destination quicker than expected will be found).
Anyway, the book covers many of the facets of quantum theory, and if I had a penny for every time Einstein is mentioned, I’d be rich. Amongst the subjects covered are special and general relativity, probability waves, quantum entanglement, gravity, and the Big Bang.
To put those into perspective, the book covers how stars manufacture the various elements we find in the universe, how there is so much space in each atom that, if you could remove it, the entire Earth would compress to the size of a sugar cube. It talks about quantum computing, how time and space, things we think of as constant, compress and expand, and how gravity doesn’t exist (at least, not in the way you think). Also mentioned are that all energy has weight, even light, so a warm cup of coffee actually weighs more than a cold one.
It’s a fascinating, if somewhat mind-bending subject and the book does a pretty good job or navigating your way through it, while avoiding equations in favour of real-world examples. Certainly worth a go.
MockingjayBuy NowBuy Now
To round out the trilogy, I’ve not long finished Mockingjay, the third instalment in The Hunger Games Trilogy. It had a lot to live up to when you look at my reactions to the previous two books, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. While it provided plenty of twists and turns, action and excitement, this book didn’t as well as its predecessors.
Following on from the end of Catching Fire, Mockingjay sees Katniss and the cast of characters introduced in the previous books as they are welcomed into District 13 — the underground, nuclear-armed enemy of the Capitol — and then tool up and fight back, raising each of the districts to rebellion and finally take on the Capitol itself.
Katniss becomes the embodiment of the resistance as she becomes the Mockingjay, the public face and voice of those who are fighting back against their tyrannical rulers. All she wants to do is fight, but being too precious to lose, she is wrapped in cotton wool, barely allowed near the front-lines and forced to become the focus of a propaganda campaign.
Following the mentally damaged Katniss, who has survived two games, is certainly not to follow a rising star of victory. She’s torn apart by guilt, by her love of two men and by duty. It makes the book a hard slog and, while the first two feature her having to overcome great odds to find triumph, she plays a less direct role in this book, too consumed with herself to be the leader we all hoped she would be, too surrounded by doubt.
I don’t think it was wrong for her character, who has experienced so much loss and misfortune, but as a reader it wasn’t what we wanted. We wanted to see her in at the deep end, overcoming the odds and striking a definitive victory, we wanted to end with a fictional VE day. Instead, Katniss presides over a pyrrhic victory, the thunder stolen. She’s left a shell of the girl she was.
It’s a good book, with some excellent ideas, characterisation and perhaps you could applaud Suzanne Collins for not falling into the stereotypical triumphant, upbeat ending, for staying true to the dark, dystopian vision that started the series, but readers don’t want to spend all their time in the dark, swept up in the grime, we want to be shown the light, shown how it will be better, we want to be resurrected. And Mockingjay simply doesn’t deliver it.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Hunger Games Trilogy
Catching FireBuy NowBuy Now
After enjoying The Hunger Games so much I was worried this book wouldn’t work as well, not least because the main premise of the first book, the fight for survival in the games, would be missing. I didn’t need to fear. I loved Catching Fire too.
I also didn’t need to fear missing the games, as Katniss and Peeta get dragged back into the arena for another turn, even though it plays a smaller role in this book. The fun of contestants figuring out what the gamemakers are trying to do to them while attempting to kill/not get killed by the others is all there.
Much of the book is spent outside the games though, where Katniss and Peeta tour the other districts and try not to stir up rebellion with the threats of President Snow hanging over them. Those uprisings underpin the whole book though and influence much of the story. The struggle to keep her family and friends safe is what drives Katniss and, hence, the narrative.
The book wasn’t a complete hit though. The handling of what has become of the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle seemed clumsy, on the one hand Katniss saying she doesn’t want a family, wants to live alone, yet having feelings for both of the men (boys) in her life, flicking between them as if to drag out the (mock) agony for each. I assume it’s designed to add tension and drama to the story, but I’m not sure it succeeds and doesn’t seem to add much more than that.
There’s also the end, which seems very rushed, with no time for explanation or review. It feels a little like the end of a two-part TV show, knowing there would be a third book it’s obviously designed as a cliffhanger to ensure you buy the next book in the series, which I find a little patronising. As such it left me a little unfulfilled. This isn’t a self-contained book (unlike the first one, which implied a future, but could be left as it was).
Still, an enjoyable read that, while it doesn’t introduce anything new, moves the story on for the finale in the next book, Mockingjay.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Hunger Games Trilogy
OutliersBuy NowBuy Now
Another audiobook of something I had been wanting to read for a while but couldn’t get myself in the mood to sit down and read. Non-fiction seems to lend itself to audio I find.
Anyway, the subtitle for Outliers is: The Story of Success, which explains it a bit more. I’d come across Gladwell from his New Yorker articles and a book on what makes the people who have achieved massive success sounded interesting. I wasn’t wrong, but as I read the book I found myself disagreeing more and more with his conclusions and examples.
The book covers topics such as timing and opportunities, showing how the best Canadian hockey players are typically born at the start of the year because of the way the selection process works. He uses Bill Gates to show how being in one of the few places in the world where he could get as much access to a computer helped him become a billionaire and how 10,000 hours is a magic number for practice in any discipline.
He goes on to discuss things like cultural legacies explaining how Asians typically do better at maths and how the hierarchy of some cultures leads to aircraft accidents.
The problem I found was that there was no depth in the research done. I knew a bit about the Gates/Microsoft history, enough to know they bought DOS, they didn’t build it, so programming skill was of no importance (in fact, they hired someone to adapt it for IBM, to whom they licensed it and made their fortune). It was also obvious that 10,000 hours practice isn’t enough to make you great. It’ll make you good, but in every field there are plenty of examples of people who had the opportunities and the hours under their belt, they stood beside giants, but never became one themselves. So while it’s a factor, something else turns you from good to great. (I discuss some of the flaws of the book here.)
That factor is the thing Gladwell completely misses. Never once did he mention that most of his outliers bet the farm at one point or another, where they made a decision, committed everything they had and could have gone under. In some cases they were just lucky, they happened to be in an industry that exploded. If IBM decided to buy DOS rather than licence it, which is the reason their prior deal with Digital Research fell through, no one would have heard of Microsoft.
So while the book is thought provoking and raises some interesting points you may never have considered before, it’s ultimately a flawed work. It’s written in an enjoyable style, easy to understand and provides some interesting insights into people and industries you might not have thought of, but as a study on success it fails.
The Hunger GamesBuy NowBuy Now
This was another book I heard about on the grapevine, one that seemed to be gaining some momentum, not least because of the updates regarding the forthcoming film adaptation. There were whispers this could the next Harry Potter (or rather, hopes).
Which is not to say the books are in any way similar, they’re not. The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the tyrannical Capitol, risen from the ashes of North America, has beaten the various districts that surround it into submission and forces them to supply all their resource needs. Once a year they remind the districts that even their children belong to them by running a lottery called the Hunger Games, where a boy and girl are chosen from each district who must fight each other to the death in a large outdoor arena, with the event televised to all citizens.
The idea sounds similar to The Running Man and Battle Royale, although the author says some inspiration came from the story of Theseus, where King Minos of Crete demanded children be sent to feed the Minotaur. I also found it similar to the City of Ember, although their lottery is purely for jobs, but it shares a tough existence in a threadbare, dystopic future. You could also say the same of Tunnels too. While the idea might not be new, the execution is and the society and culture is unlike anything else I’ve read, seeming to draw on the past more than the future. The Capitol reminds me more of ancient Rome and the games a modern gladiatorial combat or perhaps a medieval melee, the mock battles fought between two sides of knights.
We follow Katniss Evergreen, a young girl from District 12, whose purpose is to supply coal. Most of its inhabitants work in the Seam, the coal mines. Before he was killed in a mine explosion, her father taught her to hunt and that’s what has helped her keep the family alive. When Prim, Katniss’ 12-year-old sister, is selected for the games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Working with her team they craft a public persona for her to help raise awareness and sponsors, who can supply things during the game. Then she’s thrown into the arena to die or emerge victorious, but even that might not save her.
She’s a great heroine to follow. Most YA fiction seems to follow boys and any girls that appear are usually stereotypes of one sort or another or simply serve the main story, but Katniss is strong and resourceful, clever, if a touch too hard and cold sometimes (but that’s her character, not the way she’s written). Some of the other characters fall back on stereotypes a bit, bit not enough to take away from the story, which is gripping and non-stop action and intrigue.
For a book classed as Young Adult it really does take a different route. If people thought Harry Potter was dark, having a story which revolves around the contestants killing one another using a variety of weapons, surviving near-death experiences and picking up all manor of injuries is a step well beyond their sensibilities. Having said that, children do grow up and fight their way (sometimes literally) out of tough circumstances. It’s not a massive leap to see how this applies in the real world (the author says the idea came while channel surfing and seeing a reality TV show and war footage next to each other).
This isn’t the first book I’ve read by the author, having also read Gregor the Overlander, the first of the Underland Chronicles series. I enjoyed that too (and have been meaning to read some more).
Unlike The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I read immediately before this, I couldn’t put it down. It really was one of those books where, if you’re not reading it, you’re thinking about it. I’m not sure I can bestow a greater compliment than that.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: The Hunger Games Trilogy
The Hundred Thousand KingdomsBuy NowBuy Now
I didn’t start reading fantasy until quite late on, I think I started with The Lord of the Rings, but, while each fantasy store differs from the next and some have surprising aspects, they largely follow a similar pattern of being based in some sort of pseudo-medieval landscape, or some similar period from history. Not so with this The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
In this world gods and mortals interact on a daily, physical basis. In Sky, the capital, the ruling Arameri rule with an iron fist under the power of Itempas, one of three supreme gods who created the universe and all life. In the great war the three gods battled and Itempas fought his older brother Nahadoth and his younger sister Enefa, whom he killed. He imprisoned Nahadoth in a mortal body for eternity as punishment for taking side against him, along with all of the semi-gods they created.
The Arameri were rewarded for their faith in Itempas during the war and any Arameri with blood close enough to the ruling line can command the enslaved gods, using them to do their bidding, usually as weapons. The only other people who can wield magic are the Scriveners. The power of the gods keeps the other kingdoms in order.
Succession is coming though, the current ruler is dying and his daughter, who abdicated to be with the man she loved, a ‘babarian’ from the north, is killed and so his granddaughter, Yeine Darr, is called back to Sky and marked as a possible heir, along with two of her cousins. In Sky, being marked in this way generally makes your life shorter.
I’ve never read a story where mortals interact with gods, especially not when they appear, largely, mortal. That’s on aspect of the story though, which also centres on Yeine’s desire for revenge, the gods’ plan to rest control back from Itempas and the political manoeuvring of the Arameri heirs.
While the story is completely different to anything else I have read it did seem a bit of a struggle to get through. It was complex and twisted, a story complicated enough to have been real history, but I didn’t find it very engaging, it didn’t drive me to read it, to not put it down. This was the author’s debut novel though, and the book will form part of a trilogy, so possibly worth giving the next ones a go.
Series: Inheritance Trilogy
The Gun SellerBuy NowBuy Now
Having seen his turn in House, perhaps the dry, sharp wit of Thomas Lang comes as less of a shock than it would have done when happy-go-lucky Hugh Laurie, best-known at the time for portraying bumbling idiots in Blackadder or the equally bumbling Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster, first released The Gun Seller. No wonder he originally submitted it under a pseudonym.
With the rise of terrorism, the story has possibly become more relevant today; featuring assassinations, fake terrorist plots, gun dealers and clandestine operations to sell the military hardware it probably doesn’t need. The jovial wit and dark humour of the protagonist is interspersed with ruthless, Bourne Identity style violence, posh totty and spooks. Think Spooks, with more violence and less chance of the bad guys winning (and the good guys acting more like the bad guys).
The characters are different, certainly not cardboard cut-outs, but lean heavily on some established stereotypes, though you won’t notice as the plot grips and barrels along. I picked it off my shelf as it was a nice size compared to the current trend in which books seem to be mirroring societal obesity in their growing waistlines.
Does it break new ground? Not really, but it’s a fun, fast, action-packed adventure that steps far enough away from the beaten track to keep the story engaging.
The Amulet Of SamarkandBuy NowBuy Now
I’d heard a lot of good things about this book before I took the plunge and it sat on my wish list for quite some time. For whatever reason I never got around to ordering it, but I was finding listening to audiobooks a good way to get through some of the backlog and the unabridged version of The Amulet of Samarkand happened to be available at a seductive price.
Focusing on the exploits of Nathaniel, a young magician apprenticed to a junior minister, it takes place in an alternate universe and centre around London (which, despite being late in the 20th Century, appears more like Victoria-era). Beaten by his master and humiliated by another magician, Nathaniel swears vengeance on them and sets his mind to summoning a powerful djinn, Bartimaeus, capable of doing his bidding. Between them they uncover a plot to overthrow the government and they must team up and use their combined skills to survive.
Bartimaeus is probably more the protagonist than Nathaniel and the story is largely told from his quick-witted, cynical point of view. He hates being summoned by the magicians, especially an upstart boy like Nathaniel and sets his mind to getting one over on him. While he’s not doing that he’s sneaking around in different physical forms, fighting other djinn and escaping by the narrowest of margins.
It’s an interesting take on the magical fantasy, using the existing class divide of the time period with magicians being ‘above’ common folk and ruling the country. It’s also unusual in that the magicians don’t perform magic themselves, but rather summon various spirits who are compelled to do their bidding. This sets up a constant struggle between master and spirit, adding an extra degree of tension.
Ideas like these and other twists and unique takes on old ideas mean the story, largely a revenge which turns into a heroes save the day quest, never strays into the predictable and keeps you interested.
Matched with Bartimaeus’ sly wit and acid tongue it makes for an enjoyable story, whether by book or audio.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Bartimaeus Trilogy
The Catcher in the RyeBuy NowBuy Now
I was intrigued to read The Catcher in the Rye as a result of watching too much Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It’s quoted by the main antagonist. Having had a chance to sit down and read it I’m not sure I should have bothered.
It’s a lauded novel, a byword for disaffected youth, but I found it just a wandering whine that failed to engage me. This might be because it was written in 1950s America, so using words like ‘phony’ made it sound more like an episode of Happy Days than a serious comment on modern youth.
It’s a literary novel, which basically means it doesn’t have any real plot, it’s just a meander through a character’s point of view and wherever their thoughts take you. The fact that the protagonist is a disenfranchised teen who is getting kicked out of a private school made empathy somewhat difficult.
Maybe that time difference was a problem, the constant smoking and drinking, while it still happens today, just felt out of place. Caulfield didn’t feel like a rounded character, not even a ball of emotions, I didn’t fall for his cause or want to sit him down and talk some sense, I just wanted to close the book, I didn’t care. In the end, nothing engaged me and I kept waiting for something to happen, but it never did.
I did finish it. At least it’s short. Maybe it’s a Marmite novel, I’m not alone in my dislike it seems.
Genre: Classics, Contemporary, Young Adult
At Home: A short history of private lifeBuy NowBuy Now
I’m a big fan of Bill Bryson, his books generally have me flicking between laughing out loud and sucking up remarkable stories and facts from the places he visits. He has an accessible style that allows him to take complex subjects and present them in a way that is both interesting and understandable to anyone. If you have any interest in science I urge you to check out A Short History of Nearly Everything, where he traces a path through human development.
So I was very excited about At Home, which charts the rise of the modern housing and homes, while detouring through much of the surrounding social and economic changes of the times. Bryson basically walks you through each room of his house to tell you how it came about, from how chairs previously were only employed at the edges of rooms and how salt and pepper came to be the only condiments on everyone’s table.
As usual, he delivers it in an engaging and enlightening style. Even more engaging if you listen to the audiobook as I did, which is read by Bill himself. You will not be disappointed.
The PrefectBuy NowBuy Now
After reading Revelation Space I swore off Reynolds for good, but I was looking around for some sci-fi and he kept coming up. Looking through the recommendations and reading the plot outline for The Prefect it took my fancy and I gave it a go. I’m glad I did.
Although based in the same universe, the events take place at a completely different time (calling it a series is a misnomer) and is largely a detective story, following a prefect (basically a policeman) in the Glitter Band, a collection of 10,000 habitats near the planet Yellowstone. Panoply, the police force, is charged with ensuring the voting process across all of these habitats happens democratically.
The story starts with prefect Tom Dreyfus and his team investigating the exploitation of a loophole followed by a series of strange, but seemingly unrelated events, until it becomes clear they’re facing a conspiracy to take control of the Band.
My criticism of Reynolds’ first book was it was science heavy and character light, but the balance is much better this time around, with plenty of interesting technologies, but kept in the background, used to develop the story, not taking centre stage, which leaves you room to explore with the characters and root for them.
All in all an enjoyable read.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Revelation Space
AbhorsenBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve loved each of the books in the Abhorsen trilogy and this one was no exception. The best book I’ve read recently without doubt. At once inventive and stirring, tragic and heroic, nerve jangling and exhilarating, he keeps you guessing what will happen to the characters right to the satisfying end.
It’s a shame the books are classed as children’s/young adult as they really are just superb stories, they should reclassify them as general fantasy at least to ensure more people choose to read them because they are utterly terrific. I could go on spouting superlatives forever.
Concluding the story started in Lirael, the fight to save not just the Old Kingdom but the whole world sees our young heroes struggle against overwhelming odds, usually alone, aside from some enigmatic companions, while their chance of success grows slimmer and slimmer.
I’m not sure if Nix intends to return to the worlds of the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre but they are so beautifully rendered it would be such a shame not to. They really are refreshing from the normal knock-offs of LOTRs.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Old Kingdom
Percy Jackson and the Titan’s CurseBuy NowBuy Now
I was a bit disappointed when I finished the second book in the series, Sea of Monsters, but Titan’s Curse is a return to form, with the story engaging, informative and action-packed. It zips along with barely a pause for breath, trying to drop pieces of info about Greek gods and mythical creatures as our heroes battle them.
To an extent it does feel like Riordan is speaking down to his audience a little more than most children’s authors (I realise I am a lot older than the target demographic), explaining where things don’t need to be, repeating himself too much, things which I haven’t encountered in similar books. But they don’t spoil the mood too much and you can race through a simple, but exciting adventure.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Percy Jackson
WickedBuy NowBuy Now
I tried to like Wicked, but I failed. I kept going, thinking it would get better, but it didn’t. The idea was intriguing, the Wizard of Oz story from the side of the (not so) Wicked Witch of the West. In reality, very little of the book is about that and, while populated with very novel and interesting ideas, I found it ultimately just strange and unfulfilling.
It’s just a mess of stories, largely following two sisters, one who is green and allergic to water and one with no arms. If that didn’t make it hard enough to empathise, the book is filled with more unsympathetic and disgusting characters.
Trust me, just avoid it.
Series: The Wicked Years
Percy Jackson and the Sea of MonstersBuy NowBuy Now
Having enjoyed the first book I was keen to read the next in the series, but while I enjoyed it, it was a bit of a let down by comparison.
Sea of Monsters sees Percy reunited with Annabeth and a new friend, Tyson, a young Cyclops. Camp Half-Blood is under attack and its magical borders will fail if they can’t retrieve the golden fleece. Percy is also having weird dreams about his friend Grover, who is on a quest to find the God Pan.
Again, the pace of this book is relentless, with Percy and co lurching from from crisis to the next, and it’s relatively short, so quick to get through. I didn’t think it was as well rounded as the first book, but it was still good enough that I bought the next book in the series.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Percy Jackson
Fever CrumbBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve been a big fan of the Mortal Engines books since the very first one. Aside from the roaring adventures and interesting characters there was a fantastical world where cities sat on tracks and consumed other cities or standing settlements.
So it was a bit disappointing when the series came to an end with A Darkling Plain. Have no fear though, because Reeve has started work on some prequel novels, the first of which is Fever Crumb.
Set before London becomes a traction city. Fever is found as a baby and taken in by the Engineers Guild and trained as one of them. When a well-known archaeologist requests her for an assignment she is a bit suspicious and rightly so. She has strange memories from before she was born, memories of a time and place before the last uprising, the Skinners War.
As with all of the novels, the ideas are inventive, the characters endearing and the story fast. New ideas, novel twists on the contemporary (simple things like how the names of famous places have been twisted over time) and clever development draw you in and hold your attention to the end. This certainly isn’t a cheap shadow of the main series, designed to please fans and make money, it’s a great story on its own.
I’m looking forward to the next two books (A Web of Air and Scriviner’s Moon).
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Series: Fever Crumb
Unseen AcademicalsBuy NowBuy Now
Football, long the game of street urchins, largely a cover for fighting and a big draw for the crowd, is going legit in the city of Ankh-Morpork. In large, because the wizards of Unseen University have found out that if they don’t play a game they lose a large chunk of the funding that allows them an easy life.
So, with the help of the of a few unlikely individuals and the suspicious backing on the Patrician, they set about inventing the modern game.
As ever, Pratchett isn’t just writing a story with brilliant and entertaining characters but is using the subject for social commentary and insight. It’s a style no one else seems to play in the same way and it made for yet another maddenly addictive read.
Now, if we can just get him off the YA stuff (the next book is YA, but he had announced a new book, called Snuff, featuring Sam Vimes, my favourite of his characters).
If you have never read a Pratchett novel I urge you to give them a try, they may be classed as fantasy but they are far more than that.
Altered CarbonBuy NowBuy Now
I’m a fan of near-future science fiction, especially stuff which is neither dystopic or eutopic, because the world is neither now and will not turn into either in the future. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of choice though, this sub-genre is fairly small, with most sci-fi featuring alien worlds, spaceships and, more recently, space operas.
I’d heard of Altered Carbon from a number of places and it was on my wishlist for a while. So when I was in the mood I added it to an order and finally sat down to read it. I’m glad I did.
Aside from the Earth-based futurism there is also a degree of noir detective thriller as well, another genre I like, so it worked out well and I ploughed through it quickly.
It certainly doesn’t pull any punches, this is a hard edge story filled with sex, torture and all sorts of violence but it’s also stuffed with interesting ideas on what the future of technology holds and what impact they’ll have on society.
More importantly, the characters are well drawn, the plot fast-paced and the action relentless, drawing you in and holding your attention to the last page.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Takeshi Kovacs
Percy Jackson And The Lightning ThiefBuy NowBuy Now
I grabbed a copy at around the time the movie hype was at its peak. Touted as a Harry Potter replacement I thought I would take a gander.
I can understand the similarities in the media to Potter, but they are completely different books with different styles and characters. Not that The Lightning Thief was bad for that. I like Greek mythology, you’d be surprised how much it’s used in the modern world (many of the characters in Harry Potter come from it, for example, even our planets have names directly or derived from it).
One thing you can say is it’s action packed. It doesn’t let up either. Where the latter HP books were long and winding this is short and punchy, racing from crisis to crisis from new development to new development, revealing details all the while.
If you want a well-written, pacey action adventure I’d give it a go.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Percy Jackson
BrisingrBuy NowBuy Now
Eragon got some stick because the plot so closely mirrored Star Wars and both of the previous books have taken their fair share of flack about the lack of originality.
I’ve enjoyed the series, though the books are a little childish, but Paolini was only young when he started writing them (and is still only 26) and the books have matured with him, tackling more complex issues with each one.
Likewise, there were only going to be three originally. It has expanded to include a fourth, upcoming, book, and so has changed from a trilogy to a ‘cycle.’
Brisingr is a fairly hefty book, but it’s a nice read, nothing too heavy of slow. One thing you have to admire is the scale of story. While the overarching plot has been known for a while, you didn’t get much scope of this vast conflict that has consumed the whole land, but Brisingr opens it up.
That’s not to say this is classic fiction, but while it might not stand next to the great fantasy epics, it has eclipsed most with it’s reach and that’s because the characters are engaging enough and it offers some home comforts (familiar races, etc) mixed with enough new things (for most of us) to keep it interesting.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Inheritance Cycle
QuesteBuy NowBuy Now
I obviously forgot to put up a review for this book. This is the fourth book in the Septimus Heap series I’ve read (you can find links to the reviews of the others on the Reading page). My memory of it is rather vague as I read it some time ago, but from what I remember I felt it was better than its predecessor, Physik. Having said that, it wasn’t a complete return to the form of the earlier books.
That’s not to say that the book isn’t enjoyable, it’s still a good read filled with some interesting ideas. It still seems to meander around and then finish a bit too abruptly though. I also think that the series lacks a good strong villain.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Septimus Heap
What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Front LineBuy NowBuy Now
Art Linson has produced a lot of movies, starting back in the 70s, and his hits include Car Wash, The Untouchables, Heat and Fight Club amongst others, as well a number of films that won’t appear in anyone’s top ten favourites, for good reason. It gives him a wealth of experience of draw on, so I was interested in his tales of Hollywood. In fact he even produced a movie loosely based on the book, which stars Robert De Niro, ironically, as he features in the book a few times.
I’ve read a number of film-related books over the years, including the legendary Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. As such, the book didn’t contain as many insights into the business as it would for other people, I’d read similar stories and knew the horror stories of studio executive decision making and how arbitrary it seems. It has long been proven that Goldman’s maxim of ‘Nobody knows anything’ is very true. Not that I blame studio execs for trying, they’re gambling with millions of dollars and, in some cases, the very existence of the studio. Their investors want to be assured decision are made using some sort of thought process with an eye to delivering a hit. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee.
The book does a good job of highlighting the fickle nature of the many different players in Hollywood, from studio execs to agents, from actors to directors. It provides some interesting insights to some big names. It’s worth a read, but if you’ve not read something like this before, I’d recommend taking a look at Goldman’s two books about the screen trade.
StarclimberBuy NowBuy Now
This is the third book in the Airborn series, I’ve read and reviewed the previous two (Airborn and Skybreaker) and was a big fan of them, partly because of my romantic obsession with airships. Much was my disappointment when I found out that airships were abandoned in favour of a space elevator in this book.
The main cast is back as before, Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries, the young lovers who must hide their affections because of the gap in their societal status. Added to this are a few returning regulars (Chef Vlad, Captain Walken and Otto Lunardi). This time they’re going to space, although they’re opposed by the Babelites, a group set on destroying the two attempts to reach space (the French Celestial Tower and the Canadian space elevator).
The opening scene is supposed be some sort of James Bond-style pre-credit sequence I’m guessing, but it’s lacklustre and doesn’t do much to draw you in. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to engage, after a few chapters I got hooked but never really settled. Part of the reason for this was the jealous relationship between Matt and Kate, continued from the previous book, where it was annoying, and taken to new levels to make it irritating. Kate seems to be playing with Matt’s emotions, or maybe using him as she doesn’t really care, and Matt spends most of his time besotted or enraged by her. It’s just generally annoying and ends up getting in the way more than anything else, I don’t remember it really being used for a plot reason either (like they’re not talking and one ends up in a bad situation because of it). It would have been nice, at least, to have seen it switched, with competition for Matt’s affections causing Kate to doubt.
So Matt undertakes training to become an astralnaut (their version of an astronaut) and, with a bit of luck, gets chosen as one of the few to go into space. He struggles to prove himself as the fourth-choice (getting his spot as the guy ahead of him breaks a leg) and never really seems to become the man we know he will.
As for the rest, I thought Shepherd and Bronfman were basically just rips from Top Gun and that taking Matt out of his expert turf (an airship) was a waste of time, he spends the entire time out of his depth. I thought the Babelites were under-used and that having one aboard the ship would have been a great dramatic twist, plus given Matt a chance to show his heroic side, instead he gets a few half-hearted rescue scenes. The book skirts any religious issues, probably not a bad thing from the publisher’s perspective.
Not my favourite of the series, but still readable and enjoyable. Back to airships next time, Mr Oppel, if you please.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Matt Cruse (Airborn)
The Art of IntrusionBuy NowBuy Now
This isn’t the first hacker book I’ve reviewed. Unlike Hacker’s Tales, this one had much more technical detail, which is fairly interesting, and gives a much better insight into hackers mentality. It drives home that while they’re technically competent, they redefine the words patience and persistence. Having said that, some of the stories (it’s a collection of stories about different hackers/groups) are boring while others are very engaging.
Mitnick, for those who don’t know, is probably the most notorious hacker in the world (that’s not to say he’s the best), and was the subject of a book by one of those who ‘chased’ him (although he disputes the events). Aside from the stories and the descriptions, there are also ‘lessons to learn’ sections at the end of each chapter which provide some thoughts on how to reduce or remove the likelihood of you suffering the same fate. While I found the book interesting for the insight and technical discussions (not that I’m saying I fully understood them) I didn’t find it massively engaging.
My favourite book of this ilk is The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll. It’s way out of date by now but comparing it to the recent books I have read I think the fact that this is told as a detective story tracking a hacker down is far more engaging than the simple retelling of how a hack was done. Possibly it’s because there are two parties involved. Maybe that’s a lesson to be learned for books from the hacker’s perspective, if you could find a story where the hacker knows someone is after them it would up the ante.
Anyway, worth a read if you like looking at the technical stuff, not much for the leisure reader.
Artemis Fowl and the Time ParadoxBuy NowBuy Now
I’m a fan of the Artemis Fowl series and up until now they’ve always been good, funny, entertaining and inventive stories, but this one feels like a book too far. The books are normally fast paced, but this feels like Colfer took a deep breath and then attempted to tell the entire story before he needed to take another, which means it barrels along with very little time to catch your breath or reflect. If you’ve read any of my reviews of Peter F. Hamilton’s books you’ll know I have little time for huge chunks of exposition, but there’s a balance to be struck, you need to balance the action with quieter scenes so the readers can get their breath back and this book seems to lack them.
Added to which, the book feels a little nostalgic, with all the old favourite characters being squeezed into the story, in many ways, completely unnecessarily, purely because people want to see them I assume. Then there’s the young Artemis. What a waste. Here we have the possibility of two masterminds going head-to-head, two Butlers as well, but they barely feature, they barely say anything, they manage to outwit their older versions repeatedly (which in itself is mildly confusing and annoying) but they story could have featured almost anyone in their parts because they didn’t really do much you would expect specifically from them.
Not a great story, not well executed, and not much new (no new ideas, creatures or equipment) make this a forgettable addition to the series and possibly indicate Colfer is either losing interest or ideas for Artemis. That said, I’m sure there’s plenty more scope in the created universe and that he just needs a jump start, which may come when he’s not writing Hitchhiker’s Guide books, maybe if the movie ever gets made that’ll provide impetus. I suspect it will be a while before we see a new Artemis Fowl book.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Artemis Fowl
As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture TradeBuy NowBuy Now
Mark Thomas, for those who don’t know, is a comedian and activist (amongst other things), I’m a bit of a fan. He used to have a TV show (The Mark Thomas Comedy Product) on Channel 4 which had the audience flipping between outrage and laughter, a style not dissimilar to Michael Moore. He still tours, writes articles for various publications, does occasional TV work and writes books on various political issues and campaigns. A friend of mine lent me a CD of a set he did around the start of the second Gulf War (The Night War Broke Out), it’s very funny.
I don’t agree with all of his actions (or those of the people he knows), I don’t necessarily agree with all of his viewpoints, but equally I am very glad there are people who do keep an eye on what our government is, or is not, doing and stands up for citizen’s rights (on a separate note, it also shows the power of a free press, because politicians only seem to fear one thing: bad press — as can be seen from the recent expenses debacle where minsters only started paying the money back when the expenses were exposed to the world and written about in the papers).
This book (which has an absurdly long title), is about the arms trade and features a mixture of research, projects to prove how easy it is, despite UK law, to sell arms or restricted goods, meetings with arms dealers and those who have suffered because of them. Thomas strikes his normal balance of heavy and humour which means he handles a tough subject without making it sound like he’s preaching at you. As such it’s as enjoyable a read as it is enlightening. It’s also nice to see he actually managed to make some changes, which should give us all pleasure in knowing that we can have our say in how our government runs this country, not just big business or landed gentry.
The Temporal VoidBuy NowBuy Now
This is the second in the Void trilogy by Hamilton, I’ve previously reviewed the first book, The Dreaming Void. Again this book is split between the story outside the void, where factions of human civilization fight to stop or allow the voyage into the void, something only humans can enter. Alongside are several alien races, all bent on stopping the voyage, as it will mean the void will grow and consume the known universe. These aliens include a part of the Prime alien that nearly destroyed humanity in his previous Commonwealth saga. In the middle is the race for the Second Dreamer, who lives outside the void but can communicate with the Skylords inside it via dreams. Whoever controls the Second Dreamer could control the outcome of humanity.
Again I was more drawn to the tales of Edeard set inside the void as he dealt with corruption and abuse in the city of Makkathran, where his unusually strong mental powers and skills enable him to deal with the ruthless ruling families desperate to hang on to power. Possibly this is because he manages many victories over well-drawn adversaries, whereas outside the void it is mainly the ongoing run of political manoeuvring with little point scoring.
One of my criticisms of Hamilton’s books, as much as I love them, is his tendency to get caught up in hugely detailed exposition that is typically unnecessary. This isn’t so much of that in this novel and as such it zips along at a much better pace. It’s still a big and complicated book, with a lot of characters, which sometimes gets confusing as I’d forgotten who some of them were, but you pick it up as you go along. I did find myself absorbed and couldn’t put it down at times, so well worth a read, though probably too big to take away on holiday with you.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Void Trilogy
TunnelsBuy NowBuy Now
I picked up Tunnels because it was another one of those books being touted as the ‘next Harry Potter.’ Let me start by saying it isn’t. It may have been ‘discovered’ by Barry Cunningham, the same man who saw the potential in Harry Potter and the authors may have a lucrative movie deal, but I’m very confident we won’t be seeing sales anywhere near the Potter level. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It has a very inventive secret underground society, a nicely detailed world and back story, but for me it was lacking engagement.
Will Burrows is an odd loner who, like his dad, likes to dig. Not just holes in the garden, or even excavating ancient sites, he’s a tunneller, building extensive networks in the earth below a fictitious London borough. His father, a museum curator, is also a big tunneller. His mum is addicted to TV, so much so she barely leaves the sofa and his sister is an anally retentive 12-year-old who runs the house; cooking, cleaning and paying the bills. Will has only one friend, Chester, who Will has slowly introduced to his tunnelling addiction. Will’s dad begins to see some strange characters around town, outsiders who stand out even on London’s streets and then, he suddenly disappears. Will is desperate to find him and believe a secret tunnel leading from their basement holds the key.
Most of the characters, with the possible exception of Chester, Will’s best friend, are so completely odd, with such a strange mix of unbelievable character traits I found it hard to engage with any of them. These are typically anybodies the reader can relate to, they’re all eccentrics of the highest order. So I wasn’t really too bothered what happened to them.
The underground society they stumble into is equally odd, although the detail in what it looks like and how it operates is very interesting, a complete detachment from our world. The problem is it becomes more of a tortuous backdrop than part of the story, and the mood throughout to book is as deep as the tunnels they dig. I don’t mind a bit of darkness in a story, but too much and it feels like you’re wading through treacle, in this case it felt more like drowning it, with never a light at the end (pardon the pun).
This is far from the first book I have read set in an underground realm, probably not the last either, but if you want to read something set underground, I’d recommend Gregor the Overlander above this any day.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Digital FortressBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve read a few of Dan Brown’s books now, after enjoying The Da Vinci Code and they’ve been something of a disappointment. The Da Vinci Code is the pinnacle of his book series, which started with Digital Fortress. That this is his first work shows. While the ideas aren’t bad, some of the information is spoon-fed to the audience (admittedly this was released in 1998, but who doesn’t know what the NSA is and what it does, do we really need paragraph after paragraph of marketing explaining how brilliant they are?).
Before you consider the outlandish plot you have to content with characters which are walking stereotypes and somewhat chauvinistic. There may not be many places he steps over the ridiculous plot line quite so much as in Angels & Demons with the lead character jumping out of a helicopter several hundred feet up and surviving unscathed, but for anyone with an ounce of IT knowledge, he’s not far behind.
I wasn’t massively impressed with Angels & Demons when I read it, but it shows the improvements, although not complete, on the path to his best seller, which isn’t a classic but is a good read and in which he manages to rein in much of the ridiculous (I know, I have read it, but trust me, the other books are worse). Digital Fortress is one to avoid though.
LiraelBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve previously read Sabriel, the forerunner to this book, and, while it took some time to get going, was impressed enough to stick Lirael and Abhorsen (the follow on to this book), on my wish list and have had them sat on my shelf for some time.
Unlike Sabiel, which is a self-contained novel, Lirael is the first half of a story that spans two novels. It’s set some time after Sabriel, who is now the Abhorsen and queen of the Old Kingdom, with Touchstone now the king. Their children are just starting to come to an age where they are taking up the reigns while their parents head around trying to put down the worrying increase in free magic creatures.
They’re joined by Lirael, a daughter of the Clayr (a separate race/community who can see into the future), who didn’t know her father and was left by her mother at a young age. Lirael is distraught because she hasn’t developed the Sight, the thing that is most important to a Clayr.
As an ancient evil begins to rise and play out a long plan, Prince Sameth and Lirael seem to have a part to play in putting it down, with the Abhorsen and the King engaged in a perilous diplomatic trip to try and stop one arm of the plan, Sam and Lirael must go head-to-head with some of the most dangerous creatures ever seen in the Old Kingdom.
The story is filled with plenty of intrigue, twists and turns, but because it’s only the first half it raises as many questions as it answers, but the way it’s set-up Abhorsen looks to have a ripping finale. Again, the book is covered in interesting ideas and invention, this is set in a place very far from the typical fantasy setting, with much less re-use of old stereotypes and no cardboard characters, making it a gripping and entertaining tale.
Series: Old Kingdom
PhysikBuy NowBuy Now
I seem to have forgotten to review this. Generally a good book, the third in the Septimus Heap series, but for me it wasn’t as good as the previous two. It seemed a little too downcast, with at lot of text that didn’t really move the story forward, most of the middle of the story just seems to be free-wheeling. The end is far from a triumphant finish, which leaves you feeling like there should be something more. Hopefully the next book with return to form.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Septimus Heap
The Children of HúrinBuy NowBuy Now
Having been one of the relative few who have made it through The Silmarillion, which is often referred to as the bible for Middle-Earth (where The Lord of the Rings is set), I’ve waded through dry, exposition-heavy material before, but I was hoping this would be different. Needless to say I was somewhat disappointed to find more of the same.
The story of the children of Húrin, Túrin and Nienor, is covered in The Silmarillion and not much is added to it here. Some additional detail, but the main points were already covered. It’s a depressing tale, which is by no means a bad thing, but it’s told in a slow, disjointed way with a protagonist you quickly learn to loath and prose that distances you from any engagement. It spends too much time being austere, seemingly in an effort to sound like classic writing, arguably in an effort to match Tolkien’s original work, published more than 50 years ago and written long before that.
It means that, like much of the work written after Tolkien’s death, it lacks the character of his work and, as such, is simply boring. There are plenty of tales in The Silmarillion, not many as well developed as this, but I think the time would have been better spent working on them.
AirmanBuy NowBuy Now
I’m not sure what it is that appeals to me about earlier flight, when people flew things made of wood and paper and filled with explosive gas. I’ve previously reviewed Airborn and Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel, both of which I loved, and which are about adventures in airships. I’m also a fan of stories set in in the Victorian and Edwardian eras (through to the Second World War really), especially alternatives as in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass to any Americans). Perhaps that goes some way to describing my excitement at reading Airman.
I have read many of the Artemis Fowl books so I was well aware who Colfer was and I liked his work although it didn’t necessarily resonate as much as some of the other authors I have read, perhaps partly because of his comical approach. That comic element is all but left behind for Airman and is replaced by a gripping adventure.
Conor Broekhart seems to have a great life ahead, son of the Captain of the wall guard in the fictional kingdom of the Saltees (islands off the coast of Ireland), his best friend is the princess, he’s friends with the king and he has a passion for flying, and so does his new teacher, so he spends his days learning to sword fight and figure out how to build a heavier-than-air flying machine. That is, until he ends up in the diamond mines/prison on Little Saltee.
There’s something of the Count of Monte Cristo about many aspects of the story, and yes, you can probably guess how it’ll end, but that doesn’t detract from a great story, with plenty of action, excitement and twists to keep you turning the pages (I read this in two evenings).
This is a more serious turn for Colfer and a great one I think, I’m just hoping Airman proves enough of a success to encourage him to write a sequel, or two.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Making MoneyBuy NowBuy Now
Another great book from Pratchett, not quite as good as Going Postal, the first book featuring Moist von Lipwig, but with more than enough laughs, action, manipulations and outmanoeuvring to keep Pratchett fans happy.
Moist is getting bored now he has turned the Post Office into an efficient machine, his stamps have started a whole new industry and he’s having to find other ways to thrill himself while his girlfriend is away saving golems. Lord Vetinari needs the banking sector turned around to help him raise the money for his grand plans for Ankh-Morpork and he knows just the man for the job, someone who is ingenious, can talk his way out of anything and isn’t easy to kill, it’s just that Moist doesn’t know it yet.
Ingenious, inviting and as exciting as you expect from Pratchett, another one worth a look.
The Dreaming VoidBuy NowBuy Now
Hamilton is another author I have read regularly and generally been pleased with his epic storylines and interesting views on how he sees humanity in the future. The Void trilogy, of which this is the first book, takes place more than a thousand years after the events of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, although some of the characters from the previous two books return (age has long been conquered for most people in a number of ways), and they are generally welcome.
The unusual thing is that there are two universes featured in these books, the human Commonwealth and the world inside the Void, a mysterious black-hole-like structure at the centre of the galaxy and, some believe, sits another universe. The world inside the void is almost medieval but the characters have telepathic and telekinetic powers which are often similar to the traits provided by the high-tech modifications in the ‘real’ universe.
Patience is generally a trait you need to get through Hamilton’s grand operas, and that is the case here, with exciting developments interspersed with mundane story development (which you often wonder if it’s necessary). I actually much enjoyed the story set within the void, but some of the political positioning and play outside is interesting too.
I think the Nighsdawn trilogy was a hard act to follow and the Commonwealth series isn’t quite up there with it yet, though I like the direction it has taken. One of my criticism’s of both of the previous books was the amount of exposition, and the same goes here, although it can probably be extended to include characters and backstory which is unnecessary.
Again, I couldn’t help but get into it though and will certainly be looking at the next books in the trilogy.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Void Trilogy
NextBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve read a number of Crichton’s books, generally I like his mixture of fact and fiction and especially the research he does into complex topics. I also enjoy his bent on scientific/technological topics. I picked up Next some time ago when I saw it on offer somewhere but have only recently got around to reading it.
Overall I enjoyed the book and it raises some interesting issues about genetic research and what genetics means for us in the future, a future that holds nearly unlimited potential and almost the same possibility for exploitation. We’re still a way from the problems that feature in Next, but the way the law has fallen behind in the changes technology has introduced give us stern warning that if we don’t keep it could be people’s lives on the line.
That said, the story does really consist of a number of sub-plots and while they can instil outrage you don’t engage with them enough to care in some instances. Some even feel like they are introduced to shock and awe us (an ape-boy, a cognizant parrot and a cure for addiction) with outrageous concepts rather than because they add to the story. There are also a lot of characters and I lost track of who was whom at points and just had to plough on regardless.
Overall I enjoyed the book though, there’s a satisfaction to right winning out in the end, which is a nice way to finish, though some of the narratives simply stop, which is a bit perplexing. Not a classic but a nice easy read if you like a combination of science and thriller.
Troy: Fall Of KingsBuy NowBuy Now
David Gemmell sadly passed away before he completed this final book in his Troy trilogy. His wife, Stella, took what David had written to date, plus his notes and finished the book. Some people may have been apprehensive about what this would mean for the story but I think it’s fair to say that such fears can be put to rest, it’s a great book and a fitting finale to the series.
Taking interesting twists on some of the Troy myths (the Trojan Horse is a cavalry unit, not a statue) and using the already well-developed, flawed and rounded characters as well as a few new ones. The story is epic and inspiring and comes to a nice conclusion.
Well worth it for anyone who enjoys heroic fantasy.
A Darkling PlainBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve loved what is now called the Mortal Engines quartet from the very first line of book one (Mortal Engines):
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
How can you not love that? The books have proved funny, inventive, thrilling and entertaining. I was a little less pleased with Infernal Machines, the last book, I didn’t think it was as good as it’s predecessors. A Darkling Plain returns the story to its previous heights though and is a stunning finale to the series.
It follows the separate groups of characters who were split apart at the end of the previous novel. Tom and Wren on the Bird Roads, Hester and Mr Shrike in the desert, Fishcake and the Stalker Fang as well as Oenone (now Lady Naga) and Theo Ngoni. The story is filled with actions, thrills, intrigue and double-crosses. Through it all our protagonists battle to keep their friends safe and stop all-out war between the anti-tractionists (those people who live in ‘normal’ static cities) and those aboard wheeled cities. Into the mess comes old characters and new, old locations and many new ones.
Great stores transcend their plots, they speak of the world around us. The benefits of fantasy and sci-fi mean you can put the world we live in under the microscope without directly attacking it and dividing your audience. They teach us something and give an understanding of human nature and society. I have read a number of books that have done this, but which are generally overlooked as they are not part of a ‘serious’ genre (as I’ve asked before, why are sci-fi and fantasy separated from normal fiction?). For me, A Darkling Plain was another of those books.
Needless to say, highly recommended.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Mortal Engines
The Gilded ChainBuy NowBuy Now
Another one from the Sci-Fi Club Top 50 and another cracker. Most people think of fantasy novels like many of the posters you see, or a Conan movie, all muscle-bound heroes in loincloths and damsels in barely anything, fighting against dark lords and huge beasts. That’s rarely the case, certainly with the best fantasy I’ve read (not that there isn’t a place for those things).
The Gilded Chain revolves around Durendal, a King’s Blade, which is to say one of a group of swordsmen who have trained their lives and been magically enhanced to be the best fighers and protectors in the world. Once they reach age they are bound to a ward who they are compelled (by their bound) to protect to the death. Every Blade’s desire is to enter the Royal Guard and protect the King. Durendal gets attached to some noble fop because he’s the brother of the King’s mistress.
This doesn’t stop Durendal from living up to the legendary name he has chosen for himself. Eventually writing his name into history a second time, not just as a great swordsman, but when he is released, for becoming chancellor and helping restore order to the Kingdom.
The book is filled with action, noble actions and intrigue, this is far from a paper-thin mock-up of a world, inspired by our medieval past but completely fresh and with allegiences and loyalties that constantly shift. A great read.
Series: Tales of the King's Blades
Misspent YouthBuy NowBuy Now
I generally like Hamilton’s books, and this is a precursor to the Commonwealth novels of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, the first to feature rejuvenation, something that is used heavily in those books.
It’s been suggested this was a way to feel out and test the water of some of the technologies that would be used in those later novels, and I can see that in the book. It’s not a great story, especially for those used to Hamilton’s other books. Hamilton himself has been quoted as saying “I could see why it didn’t appeal to a lot of people. It was an unpleasant story about unpleasant people. With hindsight, it was never going to be as popular as my other works.”
Definitely one worth skipping in my opinion.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Commonwealth Saga
Ender’s GameBuy NowBuy Now
This was a recommendation from the Science Fiction Book Club Top 50 science fiction/fantasy novels, 1953-2002 (via Binary Bonsai). It was a good choice, I was a bit dubious, a sci-fi action novel starring a six-year-old, but Ender’s Game is fantastic. Sometime in the future Earth has to fight off an invasion force of insect-like aliens. In the end a mad charge by Mazer Rackham was all that saved the human race, and they won’t fall for that again.
To find a new commander the government has implemented a system of monitoring brilliant children, only if their offspring show promise can a family have a dreaded ‘third’ (a third child). They have a monitor attached to them, which monitors their every waking moment and then they are either accepted or rejected for Battle School.
Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin shows immense promise, as did his siblings, but where they failed it is hoped Ender will succeed, for the fate of the world rests on his shoulders. They rush him through Battle School, an academy on a space station where they children are taught to wage mock battles and lead ‘armies.’ Ender excels even though they push him harder and use more and more unusual tactics on him.
The question is, will he be ready or will he be broken by the constant challenges.
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Series: Ender's Game
Hacker’s TalesBuy NowBuy Now
I have read both Clifford Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg and Tsutomu Shimomura’s Takedown, both of which are excellent stories about tracking hackers. I was hoping Hacker’s Tales was more of the same, but what I found was disappointing. There are very few real stories and the book basically serves as an excuse for hacker’s to reminisce about the old days and what it was like to go to meetings. There’s not much meat and plenty of childish back-stabbing. The book reads more like a short bio of each hacker (some more detailed than others), but generally they are simply: “I got into computer by xxx, I started messing around and got caught by the sys admin, I found other people like me, I went to meetings, now I’ve retired.”
Not exactly exciting reading. I’m hoping my next choice in this genre is better than this, I would recommend avoiding this.
Stamping ButterfliesBuy NowBuy Now
I’m not sure I’m enjoying each new book from Grimwood more than the last. The only book that really didn’t sit well was Redrobe, and perhaps the later Arabesk books (the series seemed to go a little too out there). Stamping Butterflies takes a long time to get going, you start with three different strands that are seemingly unconnected, or at best loosely connected. It’s very, very slow, I actually put the book down for a long time before coming back to it that’s how hard it was for me to get into it. The strands themselves contain little information to move the story forward.
After what seems like an age, we finally start seeing the threads begin to merge, elements begin to overlap and links emerge. It’s not until the final chapters, almost the dying words, that it begins to make much sense and then, the resolution comes and goes in barely a flash.
It was a struggle to get through, although it did manage to draw me in towards the end, and the writing and ideas are as vivid as ever.
Genre: Science Fiction
FlyteBuy NowBuy Now
The second book in the Septimus Heap series carries on the wacky notions, action, adventure and inventiveness of the first. Septimus is slowly growing into his role, but limitations on his magyk abilities mean the problems he faces cannot simply be solved with a charm and he has to rely on others and his ingenuity to get him out of the numerous holes he finds himself in.
A great read for all ages with laughs and edge-of-the-seat action in equal measure.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Septimus Heap
SkybreakerBuy NowBuy Now
Another great action story from Oppell which starts a few years after the events of Airborn. Many of the great characters return and this book, more so even than the first, has a feeling something like a 30’s swashbuckler, where the odds are long, the technology rudimentary and yet men (and women in this case) are pushing the boundaries. You almost expect Errol Flynn to pop up and start sword-fighting with the dastardly villains at any minute. As such it’s hardly realism, with many plot twists easy to guess well-ahead of when they happen, but the action means you don’t care, and Oppell’s clever ideas and tricks are a joy to read and imagine.
He also does a good job of handling the characters relationships, I particularly like to on-off jealous but ultimately loving relationship of the two main characters, Matt and Kate, although it does tire after a while as misunderstanding and jealously then reconciliation cycle over and over.
The speed and constant development mean that there’s a barely a paragraph where something important isn’t happening or being laid down for future reference. An exciting read and I look forward to the next.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Matt Cruse (Airborn)
Infernal MachinesBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve been on a bit of a reading bent of late, starting with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which I still haven’t written a review for), but Infernal Machines, the third book in the series which started with Mortal Engines, is the first one off my shelf of to-be-read books (I keep buying new ones and reading those instead).
As with the previous books the pace is high and the action non-stop. This story brings back many of the characters in previous books, but takes place fifteen years later, when the main characters in the previous books, Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw, have a daughter, Wren, and have settled down from their adventurous early life. Squirrelled away in a long-forgotten part of the world all is quiet, too quiet for Wren who desires adventure, so when the Lost Boys turn up looking for something, she helps them and gets pulled into a tale even she will wish to end.
Almost sentimental in parts, with some easy-to-guess twists, but they’re made up with non-stop action and the constant drive forwards. Tom and Hester’s relationship, always seemingly hung on a knife edge, finally comes to a breaking point, with Tom becoming softer and Hester almost on her way to becoming as cold and hard as her father and relishing the time away from the dullness of home. Many of the plot points, stories and locations of the earlier books come back to haunt us, which is both comforting and shows the larger plot Reeve obviously has in place (book four, The Darkling Plain, has long been released).
Altogether, an enjoyable, if not especially challenging, read with characters and ideas that step well away from the stereotypes used by many authors. My only question is why someone hasn’t made these into films yet, just imagine a traction city chasing a smaller town across the scorched Earth, that would be a sight to behold.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Mortal Engines
MagykBuy NowBuy Now
Magyk is the first of the Septimus Heap series, which I found through an article on the Guardian Unlimited Film site titled ‘Harry Potter meets his match in Septimus Heap.’ I did my preferred method of research, head on over to the Amazon.com page and try and read an extract (I also found extracts from all three of the books so far on the official site — the green stars on the left are links). Anyway, what I read was good enough for me to add it to my next order from a certain online book store.
I finished it a couple of days ago and it was very good. It’s not a replacement for Harry Potter, it takes place in a made up universe, massively different to our own and closer to medieval in age and outlook, but it’s wildly inventive, very funny and a great story. You don’t see too much of DomDaniel, the villain, but from the extracts I have read of the next books, he’ll be a recurring source of evil. There are a number of other characters and, strangely, the one for whom the series is named, is far from first on the scene, or the constant centre of attention.
Sage plays about with some of the more common notions of well-worn themes such as magic (called magyk), witches, wizards and other mythological entities like dragons and boggarts. This all makes for a nice change, and she has obviously spent a lot of time filling out her world, figuring out how it functions and how it all connects together, it’s not often you see a rubbish dump in a fantasy (or any fictional) book.
Trying not to give too much away (you may wish to skip the paragraph if you don’t want spoilers), the story centres around the death of the Queen, after childbirth. Her daughter, the new ruler of the Castle, was about to be executed too, when a quick thinking wizard and witch smuggler her out and arrange for Silas Heap to find her. She is raised in secret, as one of the Heap’s own children. Their son, Septimus, the seventh son of a seventh son, supposedly endowed with supreme magical power, who was born around the same time as the princess, dies, or appears to, but is actually given a sleeping potion by the matron and smuggled out as DomDaniel has ordered his kidnapping so he can have a powerful apprentice. The matron’s son and Septimus get switched in the Young Army orphanage and Septimus becomes a YA runt, Boy 412. After the Queen was killed the commander of the army becomes the supreme ruler, but he’s only a puppet for DomDaniel who will return to re-take the position of ExtraOrdinary Wizard, the top wizard in the land and try and kill the princess so he can gain control. There’s some good strong female characters in there, plenty of odd ones too, some novel twists on tired concepts and plenty of funny lines and situations.
(Spoilers here too, skip to next paragraph) I found some of the points a little too convenient, some of the get-outs and actions too easy, and I’m not sure if I knew who Boy 412 was before the end because I did know, or because it was pretty obvious. I didn’t find DomDaniel a particularly menacing or scary main villain, the Hunter was far worse.
Overall it was a great yarn, lots of setting up, as is needed in all first novels, but the rest of the series looks set to be good. There’s supposed to be seven books in the series (just like some other franchise I know) and Warner Bros., the people behind the HP films, have acquired the movie rights, hoping, no doubt, it’ll be as big a hit. Go read it if you’re a fan of action and fantasy.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Septimus Heap
ImperiumBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve read all of Robert Harris’ books, after catching on to Fatherland somewhat later than most. Imperium is somewhat different to his other novels, which are generally set in an historical setting, and may feature actual historical figures, but are fictitious, mainly murder mystery thrillers, but always clever, entertaining and in-depth. Imperium features an actual historical figure and details event that did take place, along with some guesses to fill in the blanks.
It’s not that I didn’t like the book, I did, but not as much as his previous works. I think this came down to Marcus Cicero, the main character. He has some redeeming and admirable features, but ultimately he’s a politician in a time when anything went. He changes his morals, his position in debates and what he is willing to compromise on a whim as long as it gets him closer to his goal: to become a consul of Rome.
As such, you’re left with a character you have no wish to empathise with, striving for a goal you don’t care about and can’t get behind, unlike most of Harris’ other novels where the main characters are good and a striving to uncover the truth or justice. I like Rome, it fascinates me, and I stuck at it, but it wasn’t the sort of novel I was eager to get back to (unlike Airborn, which I couldn’t put down).
Worth a look if you like historical fiction, Rome or politics, otherwise you might want to avoid.
Genre: Historical Fiction
AirbornBuy NowBuy Now
I found out about Airborn while surfing around looking for contemporaries of Harry Potter to see if any books had sold anywhere near the same number. Kenneth Oppel was unknown to me, although he has been writing for some time, partly because his previous books seem to have been aimed at a younger audience. The article I found was going to replace the JK Rowling-shaped void in children’s publishing now HP was over. Oppel was the focus of the piece (it was for a Canadian site, he is Canadian, of course I’m not suggesting they were blowing their own trumpet…).
Anyway, I’ve just blasted my way through the first of (so far) two books about an alternative Victorian age where airships are the primary method of transporting goods and passengers around the globe. These aren’t the death-traps of the 30’s, filled with hydrogen, they use a totally different (and made up) gas called hydrium (which smells like mangos). Our hero, Matt Cruse, is a cabin boy aboard the luxury liner Aurora. Matt loves airships, he was born aloft, his father worked on the Aurora and he doesn’t like being on the ground. A routine trip changes when they find a balloon floating aimlessly across their shipping lane, with a man near-dead aboard. He says he’s seen things, strange creatures, but before they can find out more, he dies. Several months later and Kate de Vries takes a voyage. The dead man was her grandfather and she’s determined to find what he saw. Then the pirates come…
It’s fast paced (once you get past the initial setup, which I found entertaining anyway) and non-stop action. Kate is a strong, determined and very clever girl (and likes books, she’s not unlike Hermione, although trouble seems to follow her) and she’s not stuck to the traditions of her class, keen to break out of ‘ladylike’ pursuits she is supposed to be doing. She drags Matt along for adventure and discovery, not that he’s complaining, he likes her. It’s funny, and thrilling, inventive and exciting. It’s not particularly deep or complex, but it has plenty of twists and turns and skin-of-the-teeth escapes and I couldn’t put it down.
I admit that I am a huge airship fan, they have a romantic image for me (once you get past the combustible gas) and maybe my opinion is off because I was interested in simply reading about a story in a world where airships rule (if we could have produced helium rather than relying on hydrogen they may still be big), but I loved it. Why aren’t people writing thrilling adventure stories like this for adults too? All the exciting fiction I seem to be reading of late is, technically, aimed at kids. It’s a little Clive Cussler, only without the history, the classic cars and planes or the boats (or Clive himself showing up!).
For some reason I found it reminded me of Mortal Engines (probably the airships). Well worth a read if you like a good old-fashioned ripping yarn, already added the next book, Skybreaker, to my wishlist.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Matt Cruse (Airborn)
ShadowmancerBuy NowBuy Now
I remember hearing about G.P. Taylor because he was one of the authors who got picked up in the Harry Potter hype a few years back. I seem to remember some fingers being pointed by Taylor, a vicar at the time, in J.K. Rowling’s direction about leading children astray. Taylor, if I remember rightly, wrote his book as a Christian fantasy story, self-published it by selling his motorbike, managed to land a publishing deal and has since released a series of books. Taylor is also one of the few vicars I’ve heard of who knows something of wicca (pagan practices and folklore).
Anyway, I figured he’d been successful because the Christian mob had got behind him, rallying against Harry Potter and his ‘dark arts,’ but the story intrigued me and, unlike my Christian brethren, I don’t tend to condemn books until I’ve actually read them. So I decided to give it a go when a second-hand copy of his first book, Shadowmancer, appeared on List Books.
There is an obvious religious tone to the book, churches, priests, angels, satan, God and a number of other things that many religions would recognise. I’m sure people smarter (or with more time) than me could find allegories with many of Christ’s teachings and stories from the bible. Having said that, it’s a dark and interesting yarn, the characters have enough depth to make them interesting and Taylor paints the scenery well enough to make it easy to imagine, and the religious tones don’t intrude heavily enough to get in the way of the story. All in all, worth a look.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidBuy NowBuy Now
I came to Bryson’s work quite late, wondering what all the fuss was about, now having read almost all of his published work, I can say that I certainly am a fan. I like the way he combines humour, insight, facts and figures and observation into a joyful ensemble. He is one of only two authors who can make me laugh out loud (Terry Pratchett is the other).
Most of Bryson’s books are about his travels in various locations, although there is usually some biographical data to be found too. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is about his childhood in 50s and 60s Des Moines. Bryson has visited the area before, albeit briefly, and here he provides an interesting look and insight, not just to his upbringing, but also to what it was like living in America during that time, a time immortalised on film so many times.
I find 50s America fascinating, from the extreme over-indulgence to the naive, insular outlook and lack of any fear (no worries about radiation, which foods you shouldn’t feed your kids, what went into your food or just how bad for everything that insecticide is). Bryson interleaves big issues that affected the country with the little issues that concerned only him with ease and introduces some truly memorable characters. Strangely, not long after I finished reading it, I spotted a story about shoe fitters using x-ray machines. They truly thought they were indestructible back then.
Having said that, I’m don’t think it’s his best book, but it’s still a fantastic read and beats any other autobiography I’ve ever read.
MonumentBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve marked this book as recommended, but you better like fairly bleak stories. If features someone so nasty as they main character that anti-hero is an understatement, he’s a complete bar steward. He steals, tortures, maims, kills and demolishes his way through the story in an effort to get himself to safety. He thinks of only one person, himself. Ballas is a vagrant, happy to steal anything he can to pay for more drink, until one day he steals something that enters his head and drives him to unleash a powerful and destructive past that threatens all humanity, only he doesn’t know it, he just thinks the evil, manipulative Church is after him because he maimed a master, one of their highest order. Ballas isn’t just any vagrant either, he was a Hawk, one of the army’s elite, he fought to put down a rebellion, he’s a decorated hero, and that makes him hard to catch and harder still to kill.
Slowly you get used to Ballas and either you notice his depraved acts less, or he becomes a little warmer, but there will be times when you’ll hate him. Not that he’s the only one, the book is filled with horrible characters, on both sides of the law. The story itself is well drawn, in a rounded, realistic universe with some interesting characters and locations, but, for me, the ending, where everything the story is about changes in the last 30 pages and Ballas suddenly has to become a hero and defend everything he has despised up until this point, proved too hard to swallow and I felt cheated. Maybe this could be argued that the person who infects Ballas’ mind is to blame, but he was bad long before that.
Certainly not packed full of valour, but nice enough, I’ll keep my eye out for other Graham books.
How to Survive a Robot UprisingBuy NowBuy Now
I have to say I wasn’t overly impressed with How to Survive a Robot Uprising. It started with the layout of the book. It’s got a nice over, it’s on strange glossy paper with red edges, so far, so good, but that attention to detail wasn’t applied to the layout of the text, it was just page after page of basic text with no attempt to make fairly inane writing a little more interesting for the reader. There are few images, I thought some simple diagrams (next to the different types of robots, for example, of the different steps for how to avoid a particular robot feature).
Then came the actual content. Apart from being dry, there was nothing new or interesting, no insights that couldn’t be gleaned from watching a range of sci-fi films and TV series. I also thought that Wilson was too busy looking at existing systems and those currently in development. Robots, as they stand, are no threat to humans, they’re not smart enough, their sensors are not accurate enough and they’re nowhere near mobile enough to do any real damage, but he didn’t attempt to predict future scenarios, future robots or alternative sensors.
Having said that, the book is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek humour with some basic advice thrown in, and that’s what let it down the most for me, it just isn’t funny. There’s the occasional jibe, the occasional comment that raises a smile, but they are few and far between. Overall not worth picking up, if the subject matter doesn’t interest you it will put you to sleep, if it does interest you you probably already know everything it covers.
Wilson has a new book out, Where’s My Jetpack? is a ‘hilarious’ look at what happened to the future we were all promised where we everything was automated and atomic-powered. I’ve added it to my wish list (not released in the UK until April 17th), but if it’s as funny as this book, I’ll be taking it off the list.
Artemis Fowl and the Lost ColonyBuy NowBuy Now
The Lost Colony is the fifth book in the Artemis Fowl series, I’ve read them all so far and they’ve been great reads. I thought the last book, the Opal Deception, was the weakest though, and feared Colfer might be running out of steam. While this book is much better, it is far from perfect, but achieves moments of greatness and has certainly allayed any doubts for the future of the series.
Artemis, previous criminal mastermind, has turned to good. Not that this stops him from meddling in fairy affairs. Holly Short is no longer a Captain in the LEP, but working as a Private Investigator and bounty hunter alongside Mulch Diggums. When demons, another branch of the magic folk, who moved their island and their entire race outside time, start appearing in the human world, she gets drafted into Section 8, a highly secret section of the LEP. Artemis is on the case, but he’s not the only one, a girl keeps turning up at the random demon appearances, and no one knows who she is and what her intentions are. They need to find out fast because the spell that keeps the demons in limbo is breaking down and soon they’ll come crashing to Earth.
The story’s fine. It’s fast paced and action packed. Colfer charges through it, never giving you a chance to get bored, but not taking time to stretch things out either. Dramatic climaxes are over in a second and the end could have really been given a little longer. The actual finale is handled fine, but during the close it’s a rushed rundown, Artemis is dropped off and that’s it. I think he could have taken the time to show everyone returning, even if he called it a epilogue.
Artemis’ new foe, a young girl-genius called Minerva, is also dealt with too lightly. She never proves to be a match for Artemis, though shows equal intelligence, likewise she is only a nemesis for a very short time before being won over. I’d like to have seen her prove much more of a challenge, at least as much as Opal Koboi did in the Opal Deception, but as she is also a form of love interest it seems she has to be not too tough and end up playing good.
Those were my major gripes, although not seeing enough of Diggums could be another, he’s by far the best of the characters in the series for me. The rest is pretty good. The lack of dwelling on any subject means its a relatively short story and it screams along. They are plenty of new characters who prove interesting, and we even get shown more of the fairy world. I was concerned that Colfer may be running out of new ways for Artemis to scheme and that the ideas for the Lower Elements (underground, where the fairies live) were drying up, but not so it seems, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the day-to-day stuff underground and exploring a bit more of both Artemis’ and Holly’s daily lives (it would be nice if Artemis had to react to a situation for a change instead of always being the one creating them).
Artemis is also aging with the books, something that not many children’s characters do, generally they stay the same age. The Harry Potter books have an aging character too, and while it makes the books more difficult to write, it also allows for more character development and provides more obstacles. Artemis is going through puberty in this book, and while he still attacks it with a logical mind, even he is having feelings and emotions he’s not used to. Which is partly why Minerva provides some (limited) romantic interest, and it helps to show a different side of his character.
Overall then, a good book if you like funny, action-packed books about fairies and child genii, and definitely not just for kids.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Artemis Fowl
Troy: Lord of the Silver BowBuy NowBuy Now
It seems a long time since I read a book I couldn’t put down, one that had me thinking about it when I couldn’t read it, one that really got under my skin, that was until I picked up Lord of the Silver Bow. I’ve long been a Gemmell fan and read many of his books, but for some reason I’d held off buying the first of what was supposed to be a trilogy around the legendary Trojan war. I’m not entirely sure why, I love Robert Harris’ work too, and much of it is fiction strung to historical truth.
Anyway, LotSB contains much that I liked from Gemmell’s previous work, which is described as being heroic fiction, but rather than fill them with holy-than-though saint-like heroes, Gemmell has always gone for realistic heroes, men with flaws, vices, fears and who do make mistakes (though rarely when it comes to fighting it has to be said). You always feel taller and bolder after reading one of his novels.
LotSB follows several characters before the Trojan war has even begun. Helikaon (AKA Aeneas) is a Prince from Dardania, a trader who has built a huge wealth but is also a fearsome fighter, with a healthy number of enemies, but also a huge number of friends and comrades. He is a great man with a dark side, scarred by a traumatic childhood sometimes his rage consumes him and he does terrible things. One of the men who’d like to kill him is Argurios, a legendary Mykene warrior who has fought in many battles with great distinction and who sticks to his code of honour rigidly. His only desire is to serve his king, but when he steps in to save Helikaon, as his code dictates, when Mykene pirates attack him, his king makes him an outlaw. Nearly killed by assassins he wishes to end his life, until he finds love. Then this is Andromache, the fiercely independent daughter of the ruler of a small kingdom, she is to be wed to Hektor of Troy, but Helikaon has fallen in love with her, and she with him, and Hektor may be dead. Together they must fight against the odds as one of the ambitious sons of the Trojan king, keen on overthrowing his father, comes against them with an army intent on murder.
One criticism that I could level at Gemmell is that all his novels finish in the right way, evil may prevail in small parts during the story, it may look like it will win the day, but usually one or two strong fighters (with no small amount of darkness in their hearts) turn the tide and good wins through. There are loses along the way, even at the end, but generally the heroes comes through relatively unscathed and find love and happiness (to a degree). Such is the way with Lord of the Silver Bow. This never really takes away from the story, and is how fine tales of old would have done it, as I said, it leaves you on a high, and it’s certainly not plain sailing, but in the modern world we know the side of good and evil do not always get what they deserve.
A fine read nonetheless and I would encourage you to read it.
Thud!Buy NowBuy Now
Pratchett has been aiming at younger readers a lot more recently, but he returns to familiar territory in Thud! Set in the city of Ankh-Morpork, Pratchett’s favourite of stomping ground on the Discworld, where order is being brought in from the cold by the dedicated City Watch, headed by Commander Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh. Vimes is a simple man, unconformatable with his titles, just concerned with justice and getting home at six every night to read Where’s My Cow? to his young son.
Trouble has come to Ankh-Morpork though, and it’s not just the annual re-enactment of the battle of Koom Valley where the trolls ambushed the dwarfs and the dwarfs ambushed the trolls, or so the story goes. There are some deep-down dwarfs, hardliners, who are searching for something under Ankh-Morpork’s filthy streets, and are prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way. They’ve unlocked an ancient evil, and discovered a secret about the battle at Koom Valley, a secret they’re desperate to keep hidden.
Vimes can’t stand racial intolerence, almost as much as he can’t stand vampires, and he’s certainly not going to let his precious Watch fall apart because someone if stirring up old rivalries. Vimes is known for being a straight arrow, albeit using somewhat bent methods on occasion, which is why the unknown king of the trolls and the undisputed king of the dwarfs, as well as the ruler of the city, the Patrician, are all backing Vimes, even if he doesn’t always know it.
A familiar cast of Ankh-Morpork returns for Thud! with many of my old favourites, and not just from the City Watch. They’re joined by some equally entertaining new characters. Yet again Pratchett fills out Ankh-Morpork to be a real, living and breathing city, rather than just a backdrop to the story, and action and intrigue pile up. An aspect of the Discworld books is that they’re social commentary dressed up as a funny fantasy story. Thud! is no different, involving issues of racial intolerance and discrimination which have parallels in current tensions with Islamic fundamentalism, but the edge is taken off by Pratchett’s keen eye and wry wit, showing these huge events for what they really are: insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
One of things I didn’t entirely enjoy was that we’re constantly kept in the dark, which you’d expect for what is essentially a murder mystery, but it’s because we get obscure comments from a range of characters who seem to know far more than us but are unwilling to divulge it in anything more than a vague riddle. The story also seems far more distant than previous Watch books, whereas the city is normally as present as any character, here it’s involved in the narrative, but is far less important and it takes something away from the book, with Vimes treading into unknown waters, rather than being able to use his cunning and knowledge of the city and its inhabitants to his advantage.
Still a cracking read though, and I love the characters who make up the Watch, so I welcome any new book with them in.
I’ll be very surprised of Thud! doesn’t get turned into a proper game, look for it in the shops this Christmas. Too late, you can already buy it. Okay, so keep an eye out for a computer version!
Judas UnchainedBuy NowBuy Now
I’m going to start this review by saying that I like Hamilton’s books. I’ve read quite a few and, looking at the reviews I’ve done so far, it turns out that Hamilton ranks as one of my most read authors of late. Bear that in mind as you read the rest of this review, because it may not sound like I enjoyed the book, but I did.
Judas Unchained is the second novel of a two novel story that started with Pandora’s Star. It tells the response to the attack of an alien species (the Prime alien, a single hive mind controlling thinking immotiles and dumb, worker and soldier motiles), which is proving to be a devastating but not unconquerable foe. Matters are further complicated because another alien, referred to as the Starflyer, is manoeuvring the human race and the Primes into place to cause each other enough damage it will be free to wipe out the depleted survivors. Agents of the Starflyer (humans who have been corrupted and are controlled by it) have infiltrated high ranking governments positions, as well as the powerful Dynasties (rich families who help govern the Commonwealth), the media and elsewhere. These agents are influencing events and help to stymie efforts to uncover the truth.
Several main characters and a sweeping host of minor ones race against time to prevent millions more deaths and the possible destruction of the human race. They delve into the darkest corners of the Commonwealth, plough through data, trying to find that elusive piece of evidence or reason, partly refusing to believe it. The goals are twofold: stop the attacks of the Prime alien and fight it off, then either contain of destroy it (it’s already shown it will not stop until humans have been eliminated) and at the same time track down the illusive Starflyer and stop it from reaching its star ship and blasting off.
It’s far more action packed than the first book, with plenty of chases and explosions, but this also means more death and destruction. Hamilton continues to weave a delightfully tangled web, from the political fighting of the Dynasties and the government agencies, to the seedy dealings and compromises being done to peel away and find hidden information. This certainly isn’t a book that fits in either the utopian of dystopian norms of sci-fi and instead shows every echelon of society in lurid detail but with some grounding in reality (society isn’t going to be become a glorious utopia or descend into a writhing cesspool, but rather maintain the balance between them both as it does now). It paints a picture of a dirty, used universe, compared to the medically sterile and precise versions generally served up (in the same way Star Wars does when compared to something like 2001).
One of the things I like about Hamilton in general is technology. Where some sci-fi writers tend to take a very lyrical approach, describing systems that have become very abstract, Hamilton keeps his firmly routed in science and necessity. His computer systems don’t have people appearing as creative avatars, negotiating fake scenery or flying over digital cityscapes, for example. Except for wormhole technology, everything else has a line back to technology around today, although taken to extremes. Memorycells and rejuvenation/re-lifing may be stretching it a bit too, especially if you don’t believe human personality is only a bunch of data and connections in their brain. If it were feasible I could certainly see it being used (who wouldn’t want to live forever?) and using trains instead of star ships was a great move. People boarding rockets and shooting off to other planets, even if they’re only transporting goods, is a very romantic notion, something capable by the elite few, using trains and wormholes seems to drag it down to a mundane, everyday reality, as it has become for the people in the Commonwealth. Public transport across the galaxy, a nice notion.
Unfortunately, Hamilton, as with the first book, still packs it with far too much exposition. When the chase is frantically on, he slows everything down to describe the world around in the tiniest detail it seems. Likewise, when characters are travelling from one location to another he wastes pages and pages on the journey, or on small characters and their day-to-day activity, which could happily be summed up in a couple of lines or removed altogether. (Although, to be fair, one of the two instances I can think of at the moment does become more significant later in the story and the other could be argued as being used to explain the current status on a world we’re returning to after several hundred pages away).
The ending, with most the main characters being given happy, almost fairytale, closure, tasted bad to me. It’s true that many of the characters do have bad things happen to them, but most of the characters still standing get to walk off into the sunset with their dreams fulfilled. After all the death, destruction, betrayal and bloodshed encountered throughout the novel, right up to the last scenes, to finally end with everyone getting what they deserve; the bad guys die, the good guys get love, peace, money and recognition and those who were corrupted get redemption and a second chance, seems completely at odds to everything that has gone before it.
Having said all that, I found the book exciting, gripping and packed with great story, well realised characters and plenty of action. There’s also the nice realisation that Hamilton, like me, believes that humans are capable of anything when we put our minds to it and that when money and profit are put aside we really can push the boundaries back at quite a rate.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Commonwealth Saga
Predator’s GoldBuy NowBuy Now
Predator’s Gold is the sequel to Mortal Engines (read my review here), set no long after the events of the first book, it follows the two heroes: Tom and Hester. It’s not a briskly written as the first book (as can be seen the extra page length), but Reeve’s excellent characters, interesting universe, fantastic ideas, fun and wit are still there all the way through.
Hester and Tom have become air traders using their airship, the Jenny Haniver, which they kind of inherited from an agent of the Anti-Traction league (which fights against the great moving cities that try to each not only each other but static cities too). Unfortunately, a new hardcore faction has formed within the league called the Green Storm. They believe Tom and Hester killed Anna Fang and stole her airship, and their somewhat schizo leader is out to capture them to help the resurrected Stalker Fang (Anna Fang’s body, with bionic enhancement, but no memory) remember who she is and lead the Green Storm to victory.
After barely escaping them, the crippled Jenny Haniver manages to set down on Anchorage, a small moving city in the ice wastes of the north that has been desolated by plague leaving barely enough people to run it, not to mention things keep disappearing. Anchorage is ruled by the Magravine, their royal leader, a teenage girl who has had command thrust upon her, and who takes a fancy to Tom. Racked with jealously, Hester flies off and gets caught by the Green Storm. Then Tom gets captured by Uncle, head of the Lost Boys, the people responsible for things disappearing on Anchorage. Then there’s the small matter of Arkangel, a large and ruthless traction-city that would dearly like to consume Anchorage.
It’s a packed story, with plenty of action and intrigue, but it’s the creative parts that really appealed to me, from the hilarious names of many of the characters (Windolene Pye, Nimrod Pennyroyal, Widgery Blinkoe), to the idea of the Lost Boys (an entire organisation created to steal things, from information to jewels, all under control of the ever-watching, all-knowing Uncle). Maybe it was the constantly-changing locations, or the unappealing behaviour of the main characters in parts, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first.
One of the things I like about the books is that they pull no punches, they don’t feel like Hollywood films where everyone is attractive and good natured, there’s some nasty stuff going on, even by the ‘heroes’ and it gives the books a nice grounding in reality that is refreshing.
It’s a good, exciting yarn, and I’ll definitely be reading the remaining two books.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Mortal Engines
FreakonomicsBuy NowBuy Now
I love statistics, it always amazes me what you can find out it you have enough data. Pulling meaning from a pile of answers and numbers fascinates me. I’ve always had an idea to look into the statistics of which sex is the safer driver. General thinking is that women are, which is why they get lower rates on car insurance, but I bet if you took into account the amount of time on the road, average miles per year, distances travelled, time of accident and location (especially compared in relation to where they live and work) you’d actually find that men and women are much closer than current thinking puts them and that it’s because men spend more time on the road (on average) and more time in unfamiliar locations, that more men are involved in accidents.
Anyway, my first thought when reading Freakonomics, was about the subtitle: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. I thought economics was all about studying economies and money, but it’s not, it’s a social science, more specifically, it can be defined as a “study of human choice behavior.” I’d actually tie it very closely to statistics, asking questions and pulling meaning from a sample of data, though economics is aimed purely at data provided by people.
I’m guessing, but it looks like Dubner, a journalist, puts the spin on the book and ties it all together while Levitt supplied the studies and expertise that make it up. And what a range of studies they are. Covering everything from spotting which teachers were amending their children’s test scores in an effort to make them look better to the economics of a drug gang to Ku Klux Klan membership, parenting and crime.
All of this is presented in an easy-to-follow way, mainly by removing any of the science behind it, which means you’re often left taking the authors’ word that they are right and the people they’re naysaying are wrong rather than the other way around. You’re very much being spoon fed the results in a way not disimilar to how someone like Michael Moore constructs his documentaries, it feels like every sentence should end with an exclamation mark or that every statement is accusing someone.
I’m suprised the book hasn’t courted more controversy. Much of the book is about putting right, using anaylsis of the data, things which many people have built their lives, careers or reputations on. Levitt dismisses many of the people who comment on crime, for example, showing what really makes crime drop (maybe some governments should read it), he shows how real estate agents make more money on their own homes than they’re prepared to for their customers and how many of the things parents have been told make their kids smarter have no impact whatsoever, flying in the face of many well-held beliefs.
Overall I liked the book, and I was as stunned by many of the outcomes as anyone else, it got me wanting to exclaim things here and there, to point out to my local MP that more police really would make a difference, but there’s also that nagging doubt that just because I’m told something is true doesn’t mean it actually is, a statement from a couple of other economists to verify that what the book states is supported by the evidence would be nice. The amount of hyperball does make me ask questions. Maybe that’s what it takes to get through these days, maybe it took all that hype to get the book published and to raise it above the normal fair to get people reading it.
If the book doesn’t make you worry about all those organisations collecting data about you (your bank, phone company, all those stores with loyalty cards, not to mention the government) then maybe we weren’t reading the same book, because it certainly shows how powerful a large set of data can be to start drawing conclusions about people, even if they’re the wrong ones, and use it to convince others.
Reading back this review, it doesn’t sound as positive as I found the book, it really is great, thought provoking, interesting, entertainingly written and a good look inside a subject many people know little about and normally consider very boring. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you choose to read it.
Mona Lisa OverdriveBuy NowBuy Now
Mona Lisa Overdrive is the final chapter in Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogy, which started with Neuromancer. As with the previous novel, Count Zero, it features several separate storylines which slowly merge into a hectic finale.
One thing I’d say from the start is that if you’re after a straight-forward, simple written story, you’re in the wrong place, it confusing enough most of the time, with some references back to the first book I had completely forgotten, lots of characters, weird sub-languages and those strange voodoo Gods appearing again, not to mention the electronic ghost of a long dead billionairess and a character who has small memory lapses.
The ideas are certainly nothing you’ll have seen before, and it’s kind of easy to figure out where it all is and where it’s all going, not to mention some characters that don’t really seem to add much to the story.
All in all then, Mona Lisa Overdrive is interesting, but you can live without it.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Sprawl Trilogy
Pandora’s StarBuy NowBuy Now
I’m funny about not completing a book, it’s a compulsion, not finishing just seems to leave something hanging, an itch that hasn’t been scratched. So you can imagine what it took to contemplate not finishing Pandora’s Star (I was thinking of a piece I read some time ago about how life’s to short not to abandon books). In fact, I ended up putting it down for several months, reading a few other books, and then picking it up again to try and give it another go, I’m glad I did.
I’m a fan of Hamilton’s work, I’ve read quite a few of his books, most of which aren’t small, so it wasn’t the size that daunted me. The reason for almost abandoning it is that the book takes a long time to get going, with the first 300 pages or more spent jumping from place to place and filled with tediously detailed introductions to the myriad of characters and the universe they inhabit. The depth is breathtaking, giving you almost complete back stories and motivation for even the smallest character and every possible functional detail of every bit of science and technology that pops up, but it’s like trying to find a story in a manual for the star ship Enterprise. Sometimes it’s nice, but overall it feels like Hamilton is just showing off, demonstrating how smart he is and how much of a grounding in science his creations have. He must have spent a long time thinking them up and making sure they could work, good on him, but the reader, unlike most teachers, doesn’t want to see all his working, we’re willing to go along with it. It reminded me of the endless walking that takes place at the start of The Lord of the Rings, although it continues throughout the novel. I found myself skipping entire pages of exposition at times.
Once you’re over that hump, however, it starts to warm up, by about halfway through you’re humming along, and then I could hardly put it down (even if there are still large chunks of exposition to wade through). Unfortunately it ends on the proverbial cliffhanger, with everything still in the air, and you have to wait until the follow-up novel, Judas Unchained, to find out how it ends (which is a great way of selling more books, but can cause resentment in the readership).
Anyway, the main story is about the mission to investigate two distant stars which have suddenly vanished from the night sky, and far too quickly for it to be a natural event. While the Commonwealth finds the last man to fly a space ship (from the mission to Mars, ever since then wormholes have been used to link planets on an intersolar train network) and builds a ship capable of faster than light travel to investigate, the Guardians of Selfhood, a terrorist group who believe a malevolent alien intelligence is manipulating the Commonwealth and will eventually try to destroy it, is plotting to destroy the ship and seek revenge on the alien. When the ship arrives around the hidden stars and finds hostile alien life, they rush back and the race begins to build a navy and defend the Commonwealth planets.
The story is told from the perspective of a number of different characters, from all walks of life and spread out over numerous planets. They are lots of personal journeys, some of which impact a great number of people, but which are slowly overtaken by the main thread of hostile aliens. Numerous alien species, technologies, worlds and governing systems are introduced and, as with most of Hamilton’s work, are done in such a way that makes them unique, interesting and closer to reality, there are no humanoid aliens with grey skin and almond-shaped eyes here.
I think it could have done with someone to sit down and strip out the information we don’t need to further the plot, and they book would have been a racey 500 pages without losing too much, but it’s worth persevering with, though probably a book for Sci-Fi fans only.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Commonwealth Saga
Angels and DemonsBuy NowBuy Now
I was heading out the Cannes Film Festival and I wanted to take a book with me, as the festival was opening with The Da Vinci Code and I had a copy of the Angels and Demons in my ‘too read’ pile, I thought it was an appropriate choice.
Although Brown is best known for The Da Vinci Code, he wrote three books before it, starting with Digital Fortress, then Deception Point, and then Angels and Demons. While the other two are based around technology, this book is much closer to what people who have come to his work via his immensely successful best seller would expect: consipracies, ancient cults, Vatican involvement, religious nuts and Professor Langdon.
It starts with a scientist being murdered, there is a sign branded into his chest, which leads the director of the laboratory to call on a expert, Robert Langdon, to identify it. The sign is that of the Illuminati, an ancient society long thought to have been disbanded, though rumour of their existence has fuelled conspiracy theories for centuries. They were supposed to support science against the church and wield unimaginable power behind the scenes of the world’s most powerful nations and establishments. The investigators, one of whom is the daughter of the murdered scientist, learn that a canister of anti-matter has been stolen, it’s extremely unstable and if it isn’t returned to the lab within 24 hrs, it could destroy half a city as it explodes. That’s when they receive a contact from the Vatican’s Swiss Guard, the men in charge of protecting the Pope and the Vatican that suggests they have the canister. The race is on to find it when the Illuminati make contact and tell them they have kidnapped the four likely winners of the Conclave that is also going on that night to elect a new Pope. Can Langdon decipher the codes and solves the clues fast enough to save the kidnapped cardinals and the Vatican itself?
It’s a racing yarn, starting off a fast pace and barely slowing to take a breath before the end, and for the most part it’s a fantastic murder mystery. It’s harder hitting than The Da Vinci Code, with gruesome deaths, and plenty of them. Unfortunately, the ending starts to get just too ridculous and the writing is bad and unbelievably cheesy. That’s not say it’s not a good read, but when your heroes are practically coming back from the dead or hearing the voice of God, it’s hard to suspend your disbelief.
For the most part it’s a good book and a great story, you can see why they’ve already announced they’re planning to adapt it into a movie, but be ready for so many plot twists you begin to lose count, cheesy dialogue and ever more stupid stunts in the final third. The Da Vinci Code looks subtle by comparison, but this would have been a better book if he hadn’t messed up the ending, in my opinion.
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Robert Langdon
Count ZeroBuy NowBuy Now
Count Zero is the second in a cyberpunk trilogy for Gibson, though they’re not related as far as I can remember, it follows the excellent Neuromancer, the book that created cyberpunk. I love cyberpunk as a genre, but its fairly small and no one seems to be writing it much anymore, which is a shame. Gibson is an undisputed master and this book provides yet another strange insight into what our future may look like.
In this future deck hotdoggers move around cyberspace stealing information for their employers, freelance mercs are employed to steal personnel from rival companies and rejuvenation is possible.
The book follows three people, all approaching the same thing from different directions, and completely unaware of each other. Turner, a mercenary, is out to make off with a bio-tech engineer for his employer; Marly is a disgraced former art gallery manager tasked by one of the richest and most powerful men in the world to track down the creator of some strange modern art; Count Zero, better know as Barry Newman, has stumbled across something in cyberspace, something that almost killed him and is now trying to do the same in the real world, but he’s working for a group who believe the mysterious figures appearing on the Net are actually voodoo Gods. It all leads to an abandoned space station and artificial intelligence.
It’s a fairly complex story, a dystopian look at the future, and pretty confusing, but it’s packed with distinct characters, real and digital action and a mystery story too, which makes for exciting reading.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Sprawl Trilogy
Mortal EnginesBuy NowBuy Now
I forget where I heard about Mortal Engines, but reading the first line was enough to convince me I’d made the right choice.
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
I was hooked from then on and the book charges onwards, barely stopping to take a breath before the end, not giving the reader a chance to get bored. It seems like a while since I’ve read a book I wanted to get back to.
The book is set several thousand years in the future, in a time after the “60-Minute War” in which humanity used its awesome weapons to destroy civilisation, and most of the planet. Not long after that, someone had the bright idea of putting cities onto huge platforms, carried on numerous sets of tracks and powered by giant engines. This brought into practice “Municipal Darwinism,” the idea of large cities eating smaller towns and cities for resources, kind of like a food chain based on size (the idea supposedly came from the way London is constantly expanding and consuming towns, turning them into suburbs).
Into this scene step Tom, Hester, Valentine and Katherine, amongst others. Valentine is London’s top historian, to most, but he’s actually a spy for the all-power ruler, the Lord Mayor. He found the parts of MEDUSA, a terrifying weapon created by the ancients, a weapon the Lord Mayor plans to use on the shield-wall, a wall that protects the static cities of the Anti-Traction League, who oppose the moving cities. Valentine killed Hester’s parents and maimed her, leaving her with one eye and hideous scars on her face, for that she wants revenge. Tom stops her first attempt (Valentine is a hero to the Third-Class Apprentice Historian), but Valentine tosses him overboard with Hester, just for hearing her name. That leaves Tom and Hester to team up, both of them want to get back onto London. Katherine, Valentine’s daughter, wonders who the girl was and why she would try to kill her father. As Tom and Hester are finding out how nasty Valentine really is, and just what danger their new-found friends at the Anti-Traction League are in, Katherine is uncovering the horrible truth about the Lord-Mayor’s plans, and her father’s part in it.
In terms of style, Mortal Engines reminds me of works by Rowling and, more closely, Pratchett, that same humour hiding the serious, the slight twist on reality to make it amusing. A lot of this humour comes from the interpretation of historical artifacts (“Old-tech”), but Reeve has a lot of fun with his character’s names.
I absolutely loved this, and will be seeking out the other three books that round out the quartet. Aside from being highly inventive, and having a rip-roaring tale, it’s packed with lively, entertaining and un-stereotyped characters, making it all the most fulfilling.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Mortal Engines
The TravellerBuy NowBuy Now
I think I first got intrigued enough to add The Traveller to my wish list when I read some of the story about the author while hearing many critics singing the book’s praise. John Twelve Hawks is a name that stands out from the crowd. He, as far as we’re aware, isn’t a native American (or one of the First Nations as I think the new PC term has it), in fact, no one is, apparently, even sure that he’s a man. The story goes that he ‘lives off the grid’ in that he wishes to remain anonymous and stay separate from the ‘Vast Machine’ he believes runs the world. Communication with is editor is done by satellite phone and he uses a voice scrambler. How he submits his manuscripts and collects his royalty cheques hasn’t been mentioned. It’s a good enough story on its own (the only interview he’s given as far as I can see is this one with SFF World). It could all just be a publicity stunt and, to be honest, finding out that this book is part one of three was a little disallusioning. I liked the idea of someone who wrote a book in his cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin, in a room where the sun shone in, on an old typewriter, popped up to deliver his warning to the world, a complete message, then disappeared back into the masses. Learning you’re only reading part one is disenchanting.
Anyway, on to the book. The basic story is that Maya, one of a few remaining members of a group called the Harlequins, travels to see her injured father. He asks her to take on the family mantle and defend a pair of brothers who may or may not be Travellers. Travellers are people who can allow their psychic energy, their soul if you will, to float free from their bodies and travel to alternate dimensions. They provide some sort of faith, inspiration and, to a certain extent, chaos. Harlequins have vowed to protect them for thousands of years. Harlequins are trained from a very early age to be as deadly as possible and to survive and protect. The reason Travellers need protection is because an organisation known as the Tabula (aka The Bretheren) is out to kill them all, and they’ve nearly succeeded. The Tabula are an organisation bent of bringing the world into order by using covert means of control and building a digital, worldwide Panopticon, a prison where the prisoners do no wrong because they may or may not be under constant surveillance. They strive for order and control, predictability and stability, at the cost of individual rights if needs be.
Now, however, the Tabula wish to catch a Traveller and use them, so while Maya races to the brothers in an effort to protect them, the Tabula hunt them in an effort to capture them. They need a Traveller to help them show the aliens from another dimension, with whom they’ve made contact, by accident, via a quantum computer, the way into our dimension. With the advanced technology they keep being fed by this extra-dimensional intelligence they can leap lightyears ahead and make total control theirs.
The book has drawn remarks regarding similarities to George Orwell’s 1984, which is rather untrue, in 1984 the control is total and obvious, the idea with the control desired by the Tabula is that most of us wouldn’t even notice. In fact, many of the systems mentioned and used in the book are already in place in much of the western world. Other material like The Matrix, The Da Vinci Code and Minority Report (I think Enemy of the State is a little closer). The main idea, that a shadowy group are manipulating the general populace, has been expressed in many books and keeps resurfacing in conspiracy theories like the Illuminati. The difference here is that so much more of the theory is intertwined with reality. Many of the systems used to monitor people mentioned in the book are already in place, and that give the whole novel a subtle ring of truth that makes it much easier to swallow the more outlandish parts. It’s a clever idea, not too disimilar to Tom Clancy or Dale Brown using high degrees of technical detail in their military thrillers to provide greater realism.
The book plays on people’s fears of privacy, of government control and manipulation and our general fear that somewhere, someone knows a lot more than we do, which is rarely the case, anyone who has worked in a government agency would have seen how incompetent they are, secrets are hard to keep. More and more information is being kept about us, from what we buy on our credit cards, to where we use our passports, soon they’ll be GPS tracking in our cars and CCTV cameras on every corner, or so it seems. I agree that it’s a scary thought, it’s easy to see that one piece of data on its own is not very powerful, but collect enough and trends start to show, the more info you have, the easier it is to make accurate assumptions. It’s not guys with guns you want to fear, rather database technicians in windowless offices and psychologists.
Back to the book, I found it pleasant enough to read, with enough unique and interesting ideas to make it fresh, but it’s not something that changed my perspective on the world or left me with a buzz. If you’re into conspiracy theories I think you’ll love it, if not, I don’t think it’ll make you change your mind.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: The Fourth Realm
The Big PictureBuy NowBuy Now
Originall posted on A Screen Near You
I’ve been fascinated with the money side of Hollywood for many years, ever since finding out that art and money are the driving forces behind movies I’ve wondered how the dichotomous sides gelled together. The movie as art form has been discussed at length, books and books have been written about it, entire courses dedicated to it. Some parts of the money side have been exposed, but it’s generally limited to star’s salaries, budgets and box office. Then The Big Picture came along.
The sub-title of The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood is a little misleading, the book talks extensively about how the world’s richest film industry started out, how it developed and how it has been transformed by a few key players. It’s littered with insider information and quotes from stars, crew and studio insiders, which makes for compelling reading.
As you may or may not be aware, the Hollywood is owned and controlled by a handful of companies (Viacom, Time Warner, NBC Universal, Sony, Fox and Disney). These six media giants also own a large percentage of the TV, radio, print and advertising business within the US and around the world. They’re monsters, keen on global domination. In 1948, the old Hollywood was ripped apart by the US government because of its vertical integration (the movie studios owned all the cinemas and so controlled everything from production to exhibition and rarely let other people get a look in). Today, while not owning cinemas, still posess the means to make, market, distribute, exhibit and merchandise their films, but some of them also make the hardware to show them on.
This multi-facted approach, as Epstein explains, is behind a lot of what drives Hollywood. The box office, once the only means of making money from a film, now accounts for a relatively small percentage of the total (approximately 18% in 2003), as such, the industry’s focus has shifted. As the cost of making and marketing a film has spiralled, studios have had to find alternative ways to ensure they can reduce the risks of the $100+ million gamble they’re taking. To do this they have spent a lot of time refining techniques and expanding their empires and now they’re not in the business of making movies but creating Intellectual Property (IP). A movie can make money on numerous occasions: at the box office, through video rentals, on DVD, on TV, but to take it to the next level you need to create intellectual property that can be resold, licenced and reused over and over again. This is one of the reasons Hollywood is still insistent on making comic book franchises and why, after a decade of rest, the classic TV series (Charlie’s Angels, Mission: Impossible) or stalled franchises (Batman, Superman) are being pulled out, dusted off and reimagined for a new generation.
There have been some big successes for low budget, intimate films of late. Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line, The Constant Gardner, films like these have garnered a lot of headlines. These cost a tiny amount of a film like The Island or King Kong, but studios still often lose money on them (although costing little to buy, advertising, overheads and other costs pushed the average price up to $61 million a film in 2003). They serve only to bring in prestige, Hollywood’s second commodity. The money is made from selling action movies to foreign markets and getting the media giant’s other arms into action to supply soundtracks, computer games, books, magazines, TV programmes, action figures, theme park rides and millions of other licenced products. They also allow tie-ins with fast food chains and other companies interested in their target market (teens) who supply vast sums of advertising to boost the films’ profile.
The last point sounds daft, but studios spent $3.4 billion dollars on TV advertising in the US alone in 2003, another good reason for them to own TV channels. The cost of advertising a film is now upwards of $30 million (in 2001 the average cost of producing a movie trailer alone was between $500,000 and $1.2 million!) in the US, less money is spent outside. Creating awareness of a film is extremely important for a studio.
That leads nicely into the target audience. Hollywood is after a target-rich age group that is the cheapest to advertise to, the easiest to get motivated to visit the cinema, who watches enough TV to get hit by their trailers and can be sold to the world over using easily repeatable plot formulas. That’s right, they target kids. Disney spotted this first, but kids are a goldmine when it comes to films. Parents spend a fortune on ancillary products for films they like, they visit theme parks, an adult can go to the cinema on their own, kids have to take a parent, so you almost double the admissions. It’s win-win all the way.
The book also talks about the role of stars in the new system too. One reason for star power is that they can help with overseas and domestic advertising, they get on TV shows, they fill column inches (and many of the studios produce the magazines that need the material the stars provide). One thing stars do not guarantee is hits. They raise a movie’s profile, they help provide free advertising, but having Julia Roberts in a film doesn’t mean it’ll be a success. The big stars all bring a professional work ethic though, and this means a lot to the studios. They’ll battle through anything, work longer hours, put up with awful conditions, sacrifice pay in the short term (defined as pragmatism) and are consitent in both performance and appearance (i.e. they turn up day-in, day-out). It’s a side of the stars you don’t really think about. Stars certainly do seem to be the top rung in the industry.
Bizarrely, the list of highest grossing films contains none that could easily be described as a star vehicle. In fact, as Epstein lists the formula of the ‘billion-dollar club’ (films that have earnt $1+ billion via the various revenue streams of box office, video/DVD sales, TV and other rights) they all share, he even adds a point about ‘non-ranking actors.’ I’ve put the full list below.
The billion-dollar club all share the following:
- [they] are based on children’s stories, comic books, serials, cartoons, or, in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme-park ride
- feature a child or adolescent protagonist
- have a fairy-tale-like plot in which a weak or ineffectual youth is transformed into a powerful and purposeful hero
- contain only chaste, if not strictly platonic, relationships between the sexes, with no suggestive nudity, sexual foreplay, provocative language, or even hints of consumated passion
- feature bizarre-looking and eccentric supporting characters that are appropriate for toy and game licensing
- depict conflict–though it may be dazzling, large-scale, and noisy–in ways that are sufficiently nonrealistic, and bloodless, for a rating no more restrictive than PG-13
- end happily, with the hero prevailing over powerful villains and supernatural forces (most of which remain available for potential sequels)
- use conventional or digital animation to artificially create action sequences, supernatural forces, and elaborate settings
- cast actors who are not ranking stars–at least in the fact that they do not command gross-revenue shares [of the film’s revenues]
Despite all this leaning toward making money, art is still considered to have a high place, for it brings prestige and, more importantly, awards. This is an industry that invented the largest awards ceremony in the world to honour itself. The reason Hollywood makes more interesting films, even though they invariably lose money, as one Disney executive explained, is because
You can’t get directors of the caliber of Anthony Minghella, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino to work on movies designed to get kids to buy toys and drag their parents to the parks.
Having bounded on about how good it is, the book does have its bad points. For instance, Epstein spends a lot of time detailing the lives of some of the key influences in Hollywood, from Walt Disney to Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone to Akio Morita. Frankly, it’s boring, and much of it has little to do with the industry itself. There’s also numerous chapters dedicated to detailing the film production cycle from start to finish in exacting detail. Aside from being boring, it has little relevance to the book in that, while it accounts for a lot of the money spent, it has little to do with the how and why. It’s like detailing the manufacture of a car in a book about the business of the automobile industry. Anyone interested in the production of films will either already have learnt it from any number of other places and anyone who doesn’t know, simply isn’t interested.
The book really is a thorough look at what makes Hollywood tick, it lifts the lid and shines a light into the dark corners that are usually hidden from view and kept tucked away. I found it fascinating and anyone who loves movies, not just on the screen, should probably take a look at it too, but be warned, it can be fairly tough going sometimes.
The Princess BrideBuy NowBuy Now
I remember first seeing the film when I was about 12 at a friend’s house. I was big film fan even then and I was a little astonished that I hadn’t heard about it. I also scoffed a little at the title and the budget-looking production. By the end I was hooked though. The Princess Bride is a fantastic story, whether told via film or page. This version has sidenotes and commentary from William Goldman who adapted the book from it’s original language and the commentary is almost worth by the book for along, often it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
For anyone who has seen the film and think they know it all, there’s plenty more in the book, as is the case with most adaptations.
This is a must-read for anyone who likes a good fairytale and even better if you’re old enough to enjoy the panto-like humour of it, if you’ve ever wanted to be a heroic prince saving princesses or if you’re just bored with reading the kids slick modern fair give this a go.
Going PostalBuy NowBuy Now
With Going Postal Pratchett has produced another wonderful addition to the Discworld series. I have been much more impressed with the later books in the series, especially the Guards collection, and this is more along those lines, with bizarre hilarity and wonderful characters abound. Again, the topic seems mundane, the Post Office, but as he did with Vimes rebuilding the Night Watch and William de Word launching the Ankh-Morpork Times, Pratchett finds space for poking fun at the establishment and it’s traditions as well as showing the importance it has in society, all under the umbrella of a story about redemption. One man really can make a difference, especially if he’s prepared to break the rules to do it, and Moist von Lipwig is very experienced when it comes to breaking the rules.
Moist is offered a second chance, he can become the Postmaster General and try and rebuild the Post Office to it’s former glory, or he can die. It’s a tough choice, the Post Office has functioned in years, but he soon finds that there are two inhabitants of the old Post House who claim to be Postmen. With their help, a bunch of golems and the desire to keep moving, Moist drags the Post Office off of the scrapheap and starts to the challenge the Grand Trunk company, who operate the clacks communication line, rather badly, to the annoyance of everyone, and they like their monopoly, which spells bad news for Moist. If he can stay alive long enough, he might just be able to perform miracles, and get a date with the super-cynical, chain smoking, Adora Belle Dearheart, daughter of the inventor of the clacks system whose father was killed by the Chairman of the Grand Trunk company (though nobody can prove it).
One of the things that the books all excel at is characterisation. Some of the old familiars return: Vimes, Carrot and Angua all make brief appearances and Lord Vetinari returns. These characters are joined by the golem Mr Pump, Junior Postman Tolliver Groat, Apprentice Postman Stanley, Adora Belle Dearheart and Moist von Lipwig who make a fantastic cast. Adora’s eternal cynicism is wonderful and Moist’s million-mile-an-hour (his motto is: ‘Always move fast. You never know what’s catching you up.’) attack on the Post Office is madcap. All in all, an excellent addition to the Discworld series.
SabrielBuy NowBuy Now
I picked up the recommendation for Sabriel in a few different places with everyone rating it highly, but for the first half, maybe two-thirds, I was teetering on the edge of walking away from the book. In the end I was glad I stuck with it, but the story takes a very long time to get going and because the characters spend a large part of that confused, lost and clueless of what they’re up against, I felt the same way.
Even while I was thinking the plot was boring the imagination in the books grabbed me and formed a wonderfully full and complex place inside my head. The land is split into two parts: Ancelstierre is the ‘normal’ world, kind of an early 20th Century England, where cars and tanks are still fairly new, and the fantastical Old Kingdom, where the dead rise and walk the land and magic is practised. Dividing the two is The Wall, which keeps the Old Kingdom magic away from Ancelstierre and which is defended by guards with guns, swords and, in some cases, with magic powers.
Sabriel is the daughter of the current Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer whose family have always born the name Abhorsen, an office that involves travelling the Old Kingdom and putting the dead back where they belong: in death. When an underling from beyond the grave delivers her father’s sword and bells (used to fight the dead), Sabriel sets off to find his body and bring him back from beyond the grave. Along the way she frees a bastard prince, the last of the Old Kingdom’s royal line, who has been imprisoned in death for 200 years, is saddled with Mogget, a form of malicious free magic that is kept in check by a collar set on him by a previous Abhorsen, and faces one of the greater dead, who is trying to make his stay in the land of the living permanent.
When it finally gets going you’ll be engrossed and the characters and locations are all well-drawn and a nice step away from the stereotypes of the fantasy genre. You know what’s going to happen in the end, even if there are a few twists and turns on the way, but it’s got enough action, intrigue and thrills to keep you entertained (once you’re past the first half). Don’t let people tell you this is a kids book, it’s one for all ages.
Series: Old Kingdom
BlockbusterBuy NowBuy Now
Hollywood is ruled by two mistresses: creativity and money. Back in the 1920s/30s when Hollywood was making the move to sound it found it an expensive exercise, so it turned to Wall Street to raise the cash. The investors were happy to help, but not without moving some of their own in to manage the money. Before long the money moguls ran the studios and most of Hollywood. The artistic side of the business wasn’t totally banished, which is why the two benchmarks are box office and Oscar nominations.
In Blockbuster, Tom Shone follows the rise to dominance of the blockbuster in movie production, from its beginnings with Jaws in 1975 through to Lord of the Rings and Spider-man. Aside from interviews with the filmmakers responsible for bringing the films to the screen, he also tracks down many of the executives who greenlit them. The book is filled with fascinating insights into the history surrounding what have become iconic movies and battles that took place to get them made. This includes how Steven Spielberg was taken to dinner before he started shooting Close Encounters of the Third Kind and told, in no uncertain terms, that the whole studio was riding on him and that he better not muck it up. Or how Jon Peters changed the script for Batman while they were filming, meaning Tim Burton had Jack Nicholson walking up the stairs to the bell tower with no idea of what they were going to do when they got there.
The book also looks at why Hollywood has started to favour action effects spectaculars and endless sequels, remakes and spin-offs. Simply put, it’s all about the desire to reduce the chances of failure, while also finding a formula that works consistently. Effects, it seems, are far more predictable than a great story, quality acting and good characterisation. It also charts the slow change in the way Hollywood has exploited a film’s financial potential with the rise of merchandising and the shift in earnings potential away from the box office to DVD and TV sales.
What Blockbuster does it redress the void that most film theory seems to overlook: Hollywood’s primary motivator is money. This drive has had a huge impact not only on what films get made but also how a film looks, from the increase in reliance on audience testing, commercial exploitation and non-stop advertising campaigns.
It’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes movies and is interested see what goes on an industry that is so adept at misinformation and keeping its secrets locked away.
EldestBuy NowBuy Now
Eldest is the second installment in what author Christopher Paolini calls the Inheritance trilogy (the first being Eragon and the last, the to-be-released Empire). I was eager to read it having not long finished Eragon and I was not disappointed. Paolini started writing the trilogy when he was 15, spending a year writing, a year re-writing and then a third year re-drafting and re-writing again. His parents, who ran a small publishing company, literally bet the farm helping their son release Eragon and were close to needing to find other employment when the rights were bought by a large publishing house. As for Paolini, he travelled the length and breadth of the US promoting his book, giving talks at bookshops dressed as a medieval storyteller. I tell you this to give you some insight into the man behind the book. He started writing the books because he was unhappy with the quality and sort of fantasy available to read and he liked fantasy so much he decided to create his own fantasy universe where he could spend his time (apparently he has a real viking sword that he bought from the money he made on Eragon and rarely takes it off around the house). I’m glad he took the plunge because I like spending time in his universe.
Eldest is no masterpiece, but while it certainly stays in familiar territory (some have labelled it derivative), it does enough out of the ordinary to make it far from bland and boring. For me, it makes use of the stereotypes to save time rather than reduce plot or character. I’m particularly fond of his use of dragons, a race typically drawn as wild, dangerous and fearsome beasts and nothing more. The other races, the mainstay of fantasy, do seem very well based on Tolkein’s description in the LOTRs, but that accusation could be levelled at 80% of fantasy written since the 50s. Paolini does say he likes to read Tolkein and the fact that he delves into Norse mythology and has created a detailed map and separate languages and histories (even a religion for one) for the races that inhabit Alagaësia, the name of the land in the book, shows how much he enjoyed the thought Tolkein put into his novels.
The story of Eldest, unlike the earlier Eragon, focuses on three main characters. Primarily it follows the trilogy’s hero, Eragon, as he travels to the realm of the elves to complete his training as a Dragon Rider, a legendary race of heroes who policed the realm before one of their number, Galbatorix, led an uprising and killed them and all but a few of their dragon steeds. Another arm of the story follows Eragon’s cousin, Roran. They grew up together in a small town in the hills, but where Eragon went off in search of revenge after his uncle’s murder, by people who were searching for his dragon, Roran was left behind. Now the king has sent men to capture him to use as leverage against Eragon. In order to save the village and free his beloved Katrina, Roran leads them on an epic journey to Surda, a kingdom that stands against the cruel king. The other character, although taking a much smaller role, is Nasuada, ruler of the Varden, a group who avidly oppose the king’s rule and have fought him for many years.
I have to admit that the time Eragon spends training and Roran travelling seems to drag on after awhile, in the same way the constant walking in Fellowship of the Ring does (all I could think through FOTR was: ‘hurry up and get somewhere’). It’s not uninteresting, and this is the sort of thing that books do well and movies have to ignore; backstory and dense, slow, realistic character development. It’s a stark contrast to Eragon where it’s a non-stop chase with the heroes always just one step from certain death. Here a lot of time is spent exploring the character’s inner thoughts, feelings and motivations as well as plotting steady growth and change in their personalities. This will appeal to some people and not to others. It does show how much the author has thought about how everything works in his world and where everyone fits in the overall picture.
One thing that struck me is that, unlike many novels, the hero is not drawn as this fully-formed, invincible warrior who, despite overwhelming odds, performs a miracle of skill to win out the day. Eragon makes lots of mistakes, as does Roran, and things go bad as often as good for the both of them. It looked a losing battle for Eragon when you see how frail he is compared to even an elf, and then he is instantly transformed into a super-human, but even this doesn’t make him the invincible hero you’d expect (I was thinking this was a cop-out by the author). Embarassment, naivity and inexperience are constant topics, even in Eragon’s doomed quest for love with Arya, the elf who is 85 years older than him, and who does not appear to return his affections (hopefully she will by book 3).
I think Paolini has tried to make the tale epic in the way LOTR is, but I don’t think he’s succeeded and Eldest seems to be a bridging novel where the pieces are moved and the backstory necessary for book 3 provided. Having said that, it’s a good yarn for those who like heroic stories and the imagery is detailed and consuming. I’m looking forward to the final chapter.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Inheritance Cycle
EragonBuy NowBuy Now
I have to confess that this was another recommendation by my sister (although I’d heard many good things from a range of sources) and, as much as it pains me to say it, she was right, it is excellent. I’m a relative late-comer to the Fantasy genre but, if you look at my reading page, you’ll see that it’s making serious inroads on my reading material. I think I orginally shied away from it because it all seemed to be about unstoppable warriors saving helpless women (at least, to me), and I like my stories a little more complex than that. Anyway, for those of you following my entries, you should know that I’m a Harry Potter fan and that I’ve started writing a children’s novel. So I try and stay up to date on what’s hot in the field and Christopher Paolini certainly is.
Eragon is generally referred to as a children’s book but it’s something of a misnomer in the same way Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are referred to as a children’s novels. The only reason for that is that they feature youngsters in the main role, but where most others are in the low teens, Eragon‘s main character (also called Eragon) turns 16 in this adventure making him fall into the young adult category and it means the story is told from a significantly older perspective than the others (how many characters fight sword fights against fully grown and/or numerous opponents?).
To give you an idea of how much I enjoyed the book, I read it in three evenings, tearing through the pages with only my discipline and a strict eye on the clock forcing me to put it down. It tells the story of Eragon, a simple farm boy living in a remote backwater. One night, while out hunting in deserted woodland, a large blue stone drops from th sky and lands near him. It turns out that the stone is, in fact, one of the last dragon eggs given to man and elf. The eggs don’t hatch to a timespan, they wait until they find their partner and hatch only when they are before them. Eragon is chosen by this dragon, later named Saphira, to become one of the fabled Dragon Riders, gifted warriors who once kept the peace, until one of their number betrayed and killed them and, with the help of a few loyal followers, he wiped out the other Dragon Riders and installed himself as king. Now Eragon must try and stay safe and learn to use his newfound strength and magical abilities while hunted by the forces of this evil king. His choices are slim and he doesn’t know who he can trust, none of his options are easy, or safe, but he must choose a side.
It was a tense, action-packed read with a near-relentless pace. Eragon and Saphira are hunted on all sides and find themselves in a lot of trouble, while also trying to do the right thing. I enjoyed seeing a hero who didn’t have it all figured out, who constantly makes mistakes, who spends much of his time tired or injured and unsure of what to do, but through all that it just makes him seem more heroic. I’m not sure he gets through a fight without either falling, or being knocked, unconscious. There is also an interesting amount of self-examination and self-doubt, which is unusual for Fantasy character, but welcome. The scenary and landscape are drawn vividly, as are the characters, which helps make for an engrossing story and the legends that surround the main narrative are almost Tolkein-esque in their detail and history. The main Fantasy races are all here, although some would argue they tread the stereotypes with too little deviation, and there are new races too.
As you may have guessed, I loved the book, and the good news about discovering an author late is that you can read some of their other material. Eragon is the first book in the trilogy, with Eldest, the second part, recently released. The good news for me is that my sister has a copy of that I plan to steal too, the bad news is she just went on holiday and took it with her.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Inheritance Cycle
Artemis Fowl: The Opal DeceptionBuy NowBuy Now
The Artemis Fowl books are often mentioned in the same breath as Harry Potter but aside from being aimed at the same age group and featuring a young boy as the protagonist, there are few similarities. Artemis Fowl is a the son of the head of an old criminal family. He is a boy genius with a bent on illegal acts in the pursuit of money, power, respect or revenge. Or at least, he was. This is the fourth book in the series (I’ve read them all) and Artemis is slowly becoming more compassionate, caring and is losing his desire for criminal activities.
I said that Artemis is the protagonist when there’s a good case for joint ownership of the role. Artemis has a sometime nemesis, sometime collaborator in Captain Holly Short of the Lower Elements Police (LEP) Recon Unit (LEP Recon, leprechaun, get it?). Holly is the best officer in the unit but is prone to taking big risks, disobeying orders and using unorthodox tactics, much to the annoyance of her superiors. One of the jobs of the LEP is to protect the population of the lower elements (the subterranean home of the People — magical races such as dwarves, fairies, goblins, pixies, etc) from detection by humans as well as stopping crimes committed by their own kind. The main difference between Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl is the technology, Colfer relishes it and the People are armed with tech far in advance of our own. The books have been described as ‘James Bond with fairies’.
In The Opal Deception, an old foe who Artemis helped capture, the fiendishly clever Opal Koboi, awakens from a self-induced coma on a mission of revenge. After framing Holly for murder and attempting to kill Artemis and his bodyguard, Butler, she sets out on her main mission: exposing the People’s existence to the humans above and bringing their world’s together while making sure she ends up on top.
All the old characters are back and up to their usual tricks. Though Artemis having had his mind wiped at the end of the last book spends much of this one with no real idea of whether to believe in the People at all. My personal favourite is Mulch Diggums, the charismatic dwarf with more tricks than any magician. He’s blessed with some laugh-out-loud funny lines.
Overall I thought the book was good, though the story was a little skewed, with Artemis not really with it for the first half of the book and his develish dark side all but removed (he’s turning all lovey dovey, care and compassion, I was half expecting him to announce the Fowl Animal Clinic by the end). The death of a major, and much-loved, character early in the book is a little shocking, I kept thinking they might come back somehow. The conclusion also seemed a little bit of a let down, having been outplayed, out maneuvered and out thought by Koboi for most of the book, the ending seemed too easy and a bit of a let down. As this is the fourth book, and partly because Artemis has no memory, their seems to be a lot of reverie, which slows the book down and gives it a wistful air. Not want you want in an action story. Colfer’s sardonic wit shines through and the jokes and laughs are plenty, even in some of the darkest moments. Definitely worth reading if you like action, adventure and laughs, whatever you age.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Artemis Fowl
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceBuy NowBuy Now
I finally started the new Harry Potter book last weekend. Being out of the country for the actual release, you may be forgiven for thinking that I missed all the hype, but I was still keeping track of how well it was doing and how people had queued at all hours to buy it and how the eager had finished it by daylight on the day of release, blog after blog online tracked their progress and spouted their opinions. I also had to try and avoid any serious plot spoilers too. As an aside, I’d like to add that this is the first time I’ve read a Harry Potter novel in public, as I was travelling back to Holland, and I did feel a little weird imagining what people thought of a fully-grown man readingHarry Potter (with the kid’s cover no less). The only comment I got was from a stewardess and she seemed more interested in how I was finding the book rather than pointing out I was twice the age of its intended audience.
There seems to have been a fair bit of criticism fired at the book thus far, but I’m a little over a third in and enjoying it. I have to say that Order of the Phoenix went off the boil for me. Harry was being kept in the dark, which meant we, the readers, were kept in the dark, and I hate that. Add to this that Harry spent most of the book whining and moaning, flying off the handle, shouting and generally getting on my wick and it didn’t make an enjoyable reading experience, for me at least. I don’t know about anyone else, but I also didn’t feel any compassion for Sirius so I wasn’t bothered when it died (and it wasn’t like it was a nice dramatic death either, he disappears behind a curtain never to be seen again, where’s the heart-wrenching, stomach churning, tear inducing aspect to that?), I liked the character, but he was always distant and I didn’t have any empathy with him.
Anyway, Half-Blood Prince, aside from having a wonderful title, is working out quite well (I’m a little over a third through at this point). Harry is being given much more responsibility, which has made him grow up, as has the increasing seriousness of the world around him. Attacks are happening regularly and no one seems capable of stopping them, which is why everyone is looking to Harry and he’s starting to feel that weight of responsibility, starting to take it on and try and live up to it. We’ve all become surrogate friends or parents who have watched this boy grow up and now he’s beginning to show glimpses of the potential we have long known he had, it makes us proud. The only thing I might say is that the sudden upsurge of sexual interest between the characters could have been more subtly dealt with. I’m half expecting the girls to be swooning at a mere glance from Harry soon and while Rowling has pegged the boy’s obliviousness well, she has neglected the fact that, at 16, they would very certainly be paying a lot more attention to the girls. I haven’t been as bothered about the ‘slow start’ that many reviewers have mentioned, let’s not forget that this is a novel and you have the time to explore these sorts of things. Okay, yes, if I’m being critical, we didn’t really need to know about Fleur and Bill (how much older is Bill by the way?), nor did we really need to hear all about Fred and George or, really, about Voldemort’s parents (unless these things prove useful later), but I enjoyed reading them nonetheless, and it helped to lighten the tone. Order of the Phoenix was a very dark, very unsettling and pretty miserable narrative, not much light or joy there, but with Half-Blood Prince, Rowling has lightened it by letting us see that the world isn’t simply gripped in terror, everyone waiting for the next death, worried it might be them, it could have been overwhelmingly dark and dank. She’s on an upwards climb to the finish now (not that there won’t be drops into darkness), we have been through the lowest point, the point where everything looked doomed, now hope has been restored and the joy of the mundane gives us some time and breathing space before the inevitably turbulent times ahead.
At least, that’s the impression so far, I’ve still got a fair way to go though and I’ve just stumbled onto another major plot point in a review (about Harry’s girlfriend, I already knew about who dies), but most of the fun is in how it’s handled as far as I’m concerned.
Continued the following day:
Anyway, I’ve been flying through (once I got so far I was hooked, I actually had to talk myself into putting it down to go to bed Monday night) and have finished the book. Needless to say I enjoyed it.
As I said before, reading Order of the Phoenix (from what I can remember) was like driving up a mountain road on a stormy night: dark, winding, difficult, take a wrong turn and you’d be over the edge and falling into the black abyss. It wasn’t much fun. I haven’t re-read the book, and maybe it’s better when you’re not charging through it. Half-Blood Prince was much lighter from the start, and is until the end, which made it more enjoyable to read, for me at least.
I’ve read a fair number of the reviews written about the book and, while I disagree with most of the negative ones, I do agree with some of their points. The books could have coped with being edited a little more, there’s a lot of flab that could have been lost without any ill effects and the various relationships and love stories could have been pushed to the background where they belonged. I also thought the kids weren’t quite mature enough, or at least, they weren’t depicted as such. Sixteen-year-olds tend to be well on their way to adulthood and act that way, the girls especially. The never-ending obsession that Harry has for both Snape and Malfoy bothered me too, just how many times can he point his finger and go off on one with poor evidence? Although it looks like he had a point at the end (I’m not so sure), it got a little tiresome (maybe that was the point). The book was also slightly reminiscent, with too many old characters popping up for little or no reason, often doing unnecessary things, it felt like cameos by old favourites in a TV series. I’d also agree that the book seems unbalanced. We spend all the time building and building and, as I have said of a few books lately, the climax seems to come and go too fast. Even the aftermath is quick and clean, but perhaps that was the intention, to leave the uncertainty before the next book.
Having said that, I did like the ‘memory trips’ to introduce Voldemort’s history and to flesh him out as Harry’s nemesis, long and drawn out they may be, but he is the reason for the series (no Voldemort and Harry is just a regular wizard). They let us see his cruel nature and persistent planning, building him as a formidable opponent, as well as giving us a few ideas as to how Harry can defeat him in the final confrontation. Hagrid takes a backseat, which is no bad thing (I like Hagrid, but he’s best in small doses), Slughorn is an interesting new character and Fred and George, when they appear, provide welcome light-hearted relief with their usual hilarious dialogue (two of my favourite characters and criminally lacking in the films).
Now, I’d heard too much before I finished the book and I knew who died and who killed them before I got there. It didn’t take away the impact though, I was stunned and shaken. I have a pretty good imagination, I tend to get headlong into a story, and maybe that worked against me, but as I finished the book I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that it was only a story and that it’ll all turn out right by the end of book 7. I suppose the nagging point is, will it? Rowling has shown that she’s happy to wipe out a supremely important character, a character who, we are told, is the only person stopping Voldemort from taking over, and while I don’t doubt Harry will triumph in the final book, the question is, at what cost? Is Rowling capable of wiping out Harry too? I’m still a little shocked by the ending of Half-Blood Prince (which is, incidentally, another wonderful play on words, stick a comma in there and it’s a literal description: the half-blood, Prince).
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Harry Potter
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves TownBuy NowBuy Now
For the early part of this book I was having real trouble enjoying it. I think that’s because I try to empathise with characters (we all do) and that my mind it driven by logic. It was tough to deal with a humanoid (but not human) main character who has a mountain for a father and a washing machine for a mother and whose siblings include an island, a set of triplets that stack inside each other like Russian dolls, a brother who can see the future and another who comes back from the dead. Once the story starts to leave them behind and follow the main character (called Adam, Allen, Arthur — anything starting with an A) I started to get into it a bit more.
The ideas are a little odd in places, but the interactions between the characters are wonderful, the characterisation well-drawn and the story intriguing and, in the end, that pulled me through. Of particular note, for me, were the parts about the relationship between Adam and his first girlfriend and also his discussions with Mimi. The former was charming and seemed to offer a wonderfully embarrassing account of young love.
Not knowing Cory Doctorow personally I don’t know what his aspirations for his books are. I have read his three released novels, and they show a progression and a, for me, maturing of his writing. His grasp of narrative seems to have moved on a pace in this novel, finally striking a good balance. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that he could be a much better known, much wider read author if he stuck to more traditional tales. I assume he doesn’t want to follow the pack.
Incidentally, you download all of Cory’s books for free from his website
Genre: Science Fiction
Losing My Virginity: The AutobiographyBuy NowBuy Now
As some of you may recall, I bought Richard Branson’s biography (second-hand I might add) a while back. I’ve just finished it and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s not about his business practices, nor his business philosophy, and certainly not about how great he or his businesses are. It’s a simple, honest and pull-no-punches account of his life. He doesn’t try to talk his abilities up and doesn’t spend his time bragging about his achievements.
It only covers up to 1993 and gives insights into stories many people know about, but perhaps haven’t heard the full story of. For example, I didn’t know that Saddam invaded Kuwait for a legitimate reason (arguably) – Kuwait had promised Iraq several oil wells in return for fighting against Iran, they then reneged on that agreement (several times). I didn’t know that Branson flew a mercy mission into Baghdad after doing a deal with Saddam to exchange medical supplies for some of the foreign nationals (i.e. hostages) he was holding. I also didn’t know Branson was arrested by customs and very nearly went to prison for a tax rip-off relating to the records he sold. And there is, of course, plenty of insight to his Virgin business empire. I hadn’t realised how close he had come to bankruptcy, or how often, I didn’t know he only sold Virgin Records because he couldn’t get finance for Virgin Atlantic or that he created a free young person’s advice line early in his career.
All in all it was a fascinating insight into one of the most successful (just), lucky (very) and daring (undoubtedly) business leaders in British history and I thoroughly recommend it. I can’t wait for the next one to come out covering the years that have followed.
Eastern Standard TribeBuy NowBuy Now
I’d heard of Cory Doctorow because his name is bandied around in technology circles and, being a co-editor at Boing Boing, his credentials in the blogosphere are well established. I was following a link over to his site and having a look around when I saw that Cory offers his older books for download, completely free. For whatever reason, I grabbed a copy of Eastern Standard Tribe.
Set in a future where people in different time zones group together to defend their interests and their way of life, Art Berry is an agent provocateur – a worker who goes to other time zones and works for competitors of the companies in his own, purely to do a bad job and channel them into making bad decisions. Corporate sabotage on a global scale. Art is a user experience expert, a man who makes technical gadgets into useful things for real people, he’s an ideas man. When he comes up with a new way to licence music sharing on toll roads that could make him and his partner a fortune, Art’s life is torn apart by the greed of others and he finds himself imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital.
I like technology, and this book has it in spades, but with a realistic eye on the future and a thought for how people might actually use it. Add to that what is, essentially, a fairly simple plot and you’ve got an enjoyable book. The book is enough to grab your attention and keep you interested, but it wasn’t revolutionary and it didn’t really get under my skin. Linda’s character, I felt, was too antagonistic, but that may say more about me than the writing. I also felt that the end came too easily and that Art’s revenge on his previous partners would have made it far more interesting.
All in all, a good read, and it made me want to take a look at the authors other books, which is a good sign, but not something to blow your socks off.
Genre: Science Fiction
Scimitar SL-2Buy NowBuy Now
Shortly before commencing this book I read an article which stated that if you ever found yourself reading a book you didn’t like, you should stop and get rid of it, time is too short and there are too many good books to bother reading bad ones. I don’t think I’ve ever not finished a book, but I very nearly abandoned this one.
I’ve read all of Robinson’s previous books and so I bought this without a thought. His previous works, all based around submarines and special forces missions, have made some entertaining reading with some thrilling concepts and interesting characters. In this book he has a great concept (terrorists threaten to flood the US eastern seaboard with a tsunami caused by blowing up a volcano in the Canary Islands) and the same bunch of characters has returned, but it didn’t live up to the previous books.
I didn’t like this book for a number of reasons. First, there’s Robinson’s over the top pro-American stance, which means he spends half the book jamming the idea that America is the greatest country on Earth down your throat. He’d done this in previous books, but not to the same degree. This may help the books sell in the US, but it does nothing for a global audience or, more importantly, the story. Then there are the characters. Robinson has used the same characters for several books, with the core few going back quite some time, but here they are over familiar and lazily written. There’s no development of the characters, or conflict or disagreement between them and instead of finding some replacement for his main character (who has now retired) he simply brings him out of retirement (and will do again for the next book it seems). Another thing I didn’t like was that he uses the book to voice his political orientation (I lost count of the number of times the characters bellyache about not having a hard line Republican president and they make the Democrats out to be some sort of hippy tribe). Politics are fine as part of the story, but fiction is not the place to make political statements. Consumerism is writ large in the book too. All of the characters are affluent white people (overwhelmingly men) and Robinson insists on discussing their delightful meals, expensive tastes and fine wines. This is a military thriller, we don’t give a toss if they all sit down to a delicate meal of pan-fried fish accompanied by a vintage wine, we want to know how they’re going to catch the terrorists. It feels like a statement about how rich and powerful they are and leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Last, but not least, is the authors absurd desire to detail the most minuscule thing. The story involves the evacuation of the entire eastern United States. Add a little detail by all means, but don’t start listing individual works of art, or every museum and centre of excellence that stores irreplaceable items of artistic and historical significance, apart from being boring as hell, it smacks of boasting. Aside from which, if you cut it all out, the book would come in significantly shorter, meaning it was faster paced and more intense. Stopping the chase for the terrorists to detail the evacuation plans for 10 pages takes the edge off it somewhat. All in all it made me feel that I should be holding an American flag while reading it and that every time I opened the book a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner would play.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it as anything more than a holiday novel, the sort of book to read in the sun that won’t tax you. It’s popcorn in a book format, swathed in the Stars and Stripes. As propaganda for how great America is, how fantastic their armed forces are and how the Republicans keep the interests of the US (and it’s rich, white citizens) in the forefront of their minds at all times, it’s a great book. For anyone who realises there is a world outside of North America, it’s worth avoiding. I won’t be rushing out to buy his next one.
Bizarrely, the previous title for the book was Tsunami, but his publishers didn’t think anyone knew what it meant and that they wouldn’t get it. I don’t know about the US, but the rest of the world knew what a tsunami was long before the tragedy that struck last December.
Genre: Military, Thriller
Series: Arnold Morgan
Men At ArmsBuy NowBuy Now
A little while ago, I wrote about how much I’d enjoyed Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch and Guards! Guards! before that. I’m glad to say Men at Arms, the second of the five Guards books, didn’t disappoint one bit. Laugh out loud funny, clever, witty and with an eye for detail, Pratchett takes you through another investigation with the Night Watch. The Watch has been ordered to recruit some watchman from other races to reflect the city’s ethnic diversity. The Watch doesn’t understand why; Corporal Carrot, after all, is a dwarf (technically) and Lance-Corporal Nobby was disqualified from the human race for shoving. They’re joined, however, by Cuddy (a real dwarf), Detritus (a troll) and Angua (a female werewolf). Added to which, Captain Vimes is getting married and retiring. But when an ancient and deadly weapon is stolen from the Assassins Guild and is used to murder innocent people, the disjointed team must pull together and rely on each other to bring the perpetrator to justice. So superb it fails description.
Revelation SpaceBuy NowBuy Now
I’ve finally finished it. Although I’ve been fairly busy over the last couple of weeks, this book seemed to take forever to plough through, and rarely did I find it gripping me to the point that I just had to keep on reading. I’m a fan of science fiction, but this was hard going. The science-to-story ratio was very high for most of the book, which meant trawling through endless clever descriptions of clever technologies that, eventually, really had no bearing on the story. This book is described as a space opera. A space opera, to me, is a story that spans the universe, a significant period of time and has a large cast. For me, this book doesn’t qualify. Yes it covers time, yes it covers space, but neither of them is really significant to the plot. A while, yes, you could argue that there are events that could affect the entire universe, nobody but the main set of protagonists is aware of it. It has some great ideas, some complex backstory and history, some very interesting races, but it didn’t create any sort of empathy for the characters, and the shear scale just wasn’t justified. I might check out the reviews for the other books in this trilogy, to see if Reynolds has managed to step away from the technology and focused on the characters, if not, I won’t be buying anymore.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Revelation Space
Uh-OhBuy NowBuy Now
A wonderful collection of poignant, insightful, funny and touching stories and views that will change your view on the world around you. At times I chuckled aloud, at times I choked up with emotion, but always it made me think about my life and the world I inhabit. Read this and it will force you to take a look around and marvel at just what a seriously astounding planet we live on and just how miraculous the human race is.
Feet of ClayBuy NowBuy Now
Another wonderful example of Pratchett at his best. The usual misfits return, led by the part-genius, part-fanatic, part-dictator Commander Vimes, and they’re joined by some equally interesting characters. This is far more than just a fantasy novel (it’s no wonder Pratchett gets critical acclaim, but if he wrote in another genre he’d be showered with awards) with murder, mystery, issues of identity and the question of what it means to be alive all fighting for space. And yet, even through those heavy subjects, there is a vein of humour that is as twisted as it is funny. The detail and depth of Ankh-Morpork and the description of tidal forces at work in a functioning city make it seem as real as any historical city to me. Go, buy, read, that is an order.