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Sunday, 21 May 2017

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Returning to the Humble Bundle, I settled on another science-fiction title in the form of Spin. Much like my last foray into science-fiction, there wasn't much that I could glean from the blurb beyond "the stars are gone", but I was mostly optimistic. My last book entered with more or less a blank slate outlook was a resounding success, and I was hoping for perhaps another sleeper hit.


Spin follows Tyler Dupree and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, in the fallout of a massive cosmic event that starts when all the stars disappear from the sky. It soon becomes apparent that there is some kind of unnatural barrier surrounding the Earth, and that it is affecting more than just the appearance of the night sky. As more is found out about the mechanics of the Spin, Tyler finds himself torn between his two friends: while Jason throws himself into researching the Spin and why it was put there, Diane retreats into increasingly unorthodox religious movements in order to find meaning in a world that seems to be facing the end.
I found myself liking Spin, although not necessarily for my normal reasons. This is the first book that looks so closely at the world-building aspect of writing that hasn't left me entirely cold. Possibly this is because for all the understandable fascination that Wilson has for the actual scientific aspects of what would go into a phenomenon like the Spin, he balances it with how the science affects society at large. For the most part, there doesn't seem to be much reaction at all unless there's something big and showy happening in the sky. It's a slow creep of realisation instead of constant massive panic. I also liked that even when the narrative is dealing with some seriously out-there cults, there isn't the kind of anti-religious bullshit that you sometimes get with science-fiction dealing with potentially world-ending consequences. Even when the results of their actions turn out poorly, the people within these sects aren't depicted as crazed loons, just people who are scared and need somewhere to turn for answers. It's a surprisingly balanced look that is sorely welcome.
If I were to criticise anything about Spin, it would be the main character and narrator, Tyler. While there's nothing that I can think of that is actively aggravating or off-putting about him, neither can I think of anything really interesting about him either. The only thing that really stands out about him is his unhealthy obsession with the Lawton twins, and honestly it just makes him come across as embarrassingly needy. While not a huge issue, it does make the stakes a bit lower than they otherwise might be with a more engaging protagonist.

A really interesting look at a society abruptly reminded of their fragile place in the universe and how different parts of humanity look to try and cope. The main character is remarkable only for his unhealthy obsession with his two friends, but he's not enough of an issue to make Spin unreadable. Definitely one for readers who like solid world-building. 4/5

Next review: The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

After a long while of reading things that were in no way Pratchett-in-origin, I returned to the Discworld series and my husband rejoiced. Right up until I started incessantly quoting it at him whenever a funny line came up. Which was quite frequently.


Guards! Guards! follows the misadventures of Ankh-Morpork's Night Watch, a much-maligned group attempting to keep order in a city where theft and assassination are well-regarded career options. Whilst they try to rein in a rather enthusiastic new recruit, a book about summoning dragons is stolen from the Unseen University and things start getting a whole lot more scaly and fire-breathing.
I'm not going to beat about the bush. I loved Guards! Guards! from start to finish. I wouldn't have necessarily thought that the kind of grizzled noir detective tropes would work with more traditional maiden-eating style dragons, but somehow it does gel quite nicely. And it leads to some great character introductions for the Watch. I have been told that Vimes gets even better, but even at this early stage I really liked the weirdness that is the hardboiled alcoholic detective within a fantasy setting, so I can only look forward to more of him. Carrot is the 6 foot dwarf (by adoption) who is the first genuine volunteer to the Watch that anyone can actually remember, and his overly enthusiastic rookie status worked fantastically against the infinitely more cynical and self-preserving veterans. Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs are somewhat less memorable than the others at the moment, but their generally pathetic and cowardly natures make for some great comedic moments. And then, be still my beating heart, there's Sybil. I thought she was the best thing about the book, bar none. An Amazonian mountain of a woman, who has more authority in her than that of the entire Watch combined and dedicates her spare time to breeding the most ridiculous specimens of dragon that I have ever seen in fiction. She is marvellous and I want to take her home. Also, it was nice to see Patrician Veternari start to come into his own. He is probably the only one who doesn't seem to be phased by anything that the plot decides to throw at him, and he manages to have one of the funniest scenes in the book whilst at the same time having probably the grimmest scene. He's just one of those characters.

Definitely my favourite Discworld novel thus far. I would say that of all the ones that I read of the series thus far, Guards! Guards! strikes me as the novel that is most beginner-friendly, possibly drawing with Mort. So really, there isn't much excuse not to pick this up if you haven't already. 5/5

Next review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'll admit, when I got the Humble ebook Bundle I didn't have any idea of what I was getting into with Shards of Honor. I'd vaguely heard of the Vorkosigan Saga and generally they seemed good things, but I'd never really looked into the series enough to get a solid idea of what it was all about. I figured from the blurb that it would be military science-fiction of some sort, but not much beyond that. More or less completely blind going in. Nice.


Shards of Honor follows Cordelia Naismith, the captain of a scientific survey crew who becomes the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, a man of sinister reputation and the former commander of the soldiers who attacked her crew. But despite the initial mistrust, the two find themselves growing unexpectedly attracted to one another, and must face the possibility of being forever parted when their planets threaten to go to war.
I honestly didn't think I was going to like Shards of Honor when I first started reading it, as the narrative kind of throws the reader in at the deep end. I hadn't gotten further than maybe the first couple of pages in and it's throwing around new terms for planets and space-age weaponry with gay abandon. More than a little off-putting at first, not unlike trying to get your head around Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange for the first time. But like the aforementioned Nadsat, your head does manage to wrap itself around the more unusual terms with surprisingly little extra information.
Having adjusted myself to being thrust into the plot with a lot more speed than I am accustomed to, I realised that despite my initial reservations I was really enjoying myself. While the easiest way to describe the novel is military science-fiction with romance, Shards of Honor takes those base elements and does some really interesting things with them. So, first the military bit. I'm actually kind of surprised at how little fighting is actually shown directly. Possibly this is due to the main character being more or less a non-combatant, but the parts of war that are shown most often can be boiled are internal politics and large scale battle strategy. Considering how much I love some politics and back-stabbing, I was totally in my element. Additionally, it was good to see that the sides aren't easily delineated into purely good or malign. While the invading Barrayaran army is mostly in the wrong, it has a mix of Caligula types versus more noble types like Vorkosigan. Similarly, while there are perfectly reasonable people on the side of Escobar and Beta Colony like Cordelia, there are a surprising amount of people unwilling to look beyond basic propaganda messages. And no-one gets out of war unscathed, even or perhaps especially those who got what they wanted from the conflict. I am definitely looking forward to reading more about this world.
Second, the romance. I was pleasantly surprised that the novel focused on a middle age romance. While I'm a sucker for most kinds of romance, I don't think I've really seen much in the genre where the people involved aren't in their mid-twenties or younger (aside from the supernatural stuff, but even then no-one thinks or looks over thirty). It was refreshing to see the romance unfold with more maturity and a more thoughtful pace. It's established pretty quickly that both Cordelia and Aral have been badly burned by their romantic attachments in the past, so their connection is less outwardly passionate, but no less powerful for it.

A bit of a slow burner at the start, but well worth the short period of confusion at the beginning. Shards of Honor is probably quite a good introduction to military science-fiction, if my reaction was anything to go by. I would definitely look into getting more of the Vorkosigan Saga as a result anyway. 4.5/5

Next review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

As some of you may have noticed, I am currently working my way through the second Humble ebook Bundle. I remember being vaguely interested in Little Brother when I first got the bundle, if only because it was dealing with a subject that I could discuss with my husband. If nothing, it would be nice to be able to actively engage with one of his special interests a bit more.

Little Brother follows Marcus Yallow, a more or less regular teen with a particular interest in technology and the ways that it can help him bunk off school. One particular day, he and some friends skip class, only to find themselves in the vicinity of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. During the chaos, he and his friends are arrested by the Department of Home Security and interrogated for nearly a week. When he is let out, he realises that his best friend Darryl wasn't released with them. Combined with the fact that the DHS has made San Francisco into a police state, and Marcus has more than enough reason to take them down.
Right, so there's something that I want to get out of the way right away. While I did enjoy Little Brother overall, there is a lot of stuff that Doctorow explains, especially at the beginning. While I do acknowledge that there's a fair bit that does need to be expanded on, especially if computers and security systems aren't subjects that you've looked into before, there is still a fine line with how much is necessary for proper engagement. I don't know whether this is because my husband has tried to explain at least some basic concepts to me, but I personally found that the stuff at the beginning kind of went overboard with the detail. Contrasting that, a concept that comes up later in the novel was so strangely explained that I had to get my husband to re-explain it for me when I got home from work. That last point aside though, there isn't really anything complicated enough to derail the plot and I can understand that you would want to err on the side of too much information when you're targeting a slightly younger audience. So this might be more of an annoyance if you're more familiar with coding when you go into this, but for complete beginners I can see the overabundance of detail being more useful than annoying.
Having gotten that negativity out of the way, I will say that I really enjoyed Little Brother. It is a really insightful look into what could happen if a country decides that the needs of "security" overrides the rights of its citizens' to privacy and free speech. The fact that I finished this on the day that Erdogan banned Wikipedia in Turkey, in order to block out content by writers accused of "supporting terror", is not something that has escaped me. Following the initial terror attack at the beginning, terrorists aren't even considered a credible threat by the narrative, regardless of how much the DHS try to insist that they're the only threat. And I think that that is very telling actually. While terrorism is something that has mentally and emotionally shaped Western society since the turn of the century and I wouldn't want to underplay the damage that these individuals have caused to the families of their victims, I don't think that terrorists are what we are really scared of. At least for me, there is the awareness that terror groups just don't have the resources or numbers in order to actually change things or even react to the increased measures against them. In contrast, working as a public servant I am keenly aware of just how much information that a government has about its citizens, and the prospect of what could happen if my government decided that it could exploit that in the name of safety feels a lot more real and legitimately terrifies me at times. But then I talk to my parents about this, and they're of a generation that doesn't necessarily understand technology as much and would perhaps prefer to err on the side of security over internet freedom. Little Brother gets into this younger mindset really well, and is probably a good place to try and introduce these kinds of concepts to those who aren't as familiar with them.

Definitely one to recommend for someone looking for a semi-realistic modern dystopia. It's a bit over-the-top when it comes to explaining concepts at times, but for the most part it appears to be pretty accurate when it comes to all things coding. 4/5

Next review: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

I've had Just a Geek on my reading list for some time now, but I have only really felt my interest in Wil Wheaton flare up more recently after getting back into Geek & Sundry's output again, specifically Critical Role and Tabletop. Since I was mostly familiar with Wheaton's work from around 2012 onwards, I was looking forward to reading about his work from before then.


Just a Geek is a collection of essays centred around entries that Wil Wheaton made on his personal blog wilwheaton.net, focusing on the entries between the website's inception in 2001 and the book's publication in 2004. In these essays, he focuses mainly on his struggles as an actor famous enough to be too recognisable for throwaway commercials but no longer famous enough to pull in huge crowds, as well as his complicated love-hate relationship with Star Trek and the community surrounding it.
It's kind of weird reading Just a Geek since most of my impression of Wheaton's work is from since he became something of a geek icon in more recent years. I didn't really see anything of Star Trek beyond the original series until I started dating my husband just over 7 years ago. By then, Wheaton had pretty much moved on from being "that guy who used to be famous when he was a kid" to someone who worked a little bit in all kinds of fields. I mean, I think the first thing I watched that featured Wheaton in the cast was Teen Titans, so to think that for years he was Wesley Crusher in the eyes of the world is a bit surreal really. As such, it was an unexpectedly sober reading experience, trying to mesh the charming persona that I had seen on Tabletop with the frustrated impotence of some of the early blog entries that are included here. There is a word that I had heard in my experiences on the internet called Sonder, the definition of which is as follows:
"The realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own - populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness - an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you'll never know existed, in which you might only appear once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk." 
While it mainly applies to random people who may cross your path only once, I do think it has more general applications. With Wheaton, it was something of a shock to hear him talking about just how depressing it could get with regards to wasted career opportunities, auditions that went to flavour-of-the-moment actors, and the difficulties balancing work and family life, because while he does come across as a lot more genuine than a lot of actors, you do get the realisation that there is a lot more under the surface than perhaps you want to acknowledge when watching something silly and fun like Tabletop. And maybe you get to see the shape of how his life continued, to the point where the 2010s come along and he seems to be in a much better place, though still looking enviably baby-faced. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I appreciated just how much Wheaton admits to his audience here. It's a brave thing to do, especially for someone so inextricably linked to the near-universally disliked Wesley Crusher.

An interesting and touching collection of essays that focuses on his difficulties with his prior child star status and his growing investment in blogging and writing. His style is incredibly readable, with a lot of charm and personality. Also kudos has to go to him for focusing on some tough subjects that most people would try and gloss over. 5/5

Next review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker has been on my reading list for a fair while now, picked up as part of a geeky bundle. I was definitely looking forward to this one though, as it combines one of my favourite sub-genres, steampunk, with something looking horror elements. I was keen to see how it would pan out.


In an alternate history where the Civil War has been raging for two decades, an attempt to mine through the frozen Klondike for gold leads to disaster when the massive drill known as the Boneshaker destroys huge parts of downtown Seattle and releases a previously subterranean gas that turns those unfortunate to breathe it into the living dead. Sixteen years later, the worst affected parts of the city have been sealed off by walls, and the widow and son of the Boneshaker's inventor, Leviticus Blue, are trying to make a living whilst dealing with the ignominy of their relative's devastating actions. When Ezekiel makes his way into the sealed off city determined to find proof of his father's lack of malicious intent, Briar must find a way through the living dead and heavily armed criminals still living in the ravaged city in order to bring her son back.
Boneshaker was something of a slow burner for me. While I absolutely loved Briar and her sections trying to reach her son whilst regretting all the things that she never felt ready to tell him about his father, I was less keen on Zeke's sections. While there's nothing outright wrong about the way that he's written, I just find his kind of character irritating. An ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure and all, it's more interesting watching Briar's more considered approach as opposed to Zeke's "I have maps and a mask, I have no more need for preparation" plan of attack, which inevitably leads to a lot of blind panic. He does get better by the end though, so it's worth it to plough through his sections of blundering in the middle of the book. And Boneshaker is definitely worth finishing. Keeping in mind that it's alternate history and thus there are some massive creative liberties that have been taken with regards to historical accuracy, you can really tell that Priest is enthusiastic about the period and tries to keep as much historical flavour as possible within her re-imagined chronology. It makes the world feel a lot more grounded and realistic than a lot of other fantasy/science-fiction books, even compared to series where comparatively little is different to the real world. I can't really think of many people that I couldn't recommend this to.

A steampunk story that feels a lot more grounded than other examples in the genre even considering the additional undead, Boneshaker is definitely a book that I would recommend picking up for fans of the genre or those looking to for an introduction to steampunk. I personally found Zeke's sections in the middle to be a bit tiresome at times, but they are more than made up for by Briar's sections and he does gradually get some decent character development. The characters are solid, and there is some decent intrigue. 4.5/5

Next review: Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

So it's been a while since I last read anything from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Having spent some time reading other material, I was really looking forward to finding out how the series would progress. That and I could see my husband positively twitching as I read anything but Dresden Files or Discworld. Be aware that there may be spoilers for Storm Front below.


Fool Moon sees Harry about 6 months after the end of the previous book, and he is still feeling the negative consequences of it. Murphy doesn't trust him after he went after her suspect alone and withheld information about the case from her. As such, the work that he's gotten from the police has slowly been dwindling over the months. But when Murphy comes to him with what looks like werewolf attacks, it soon becomes clear that there is a lot more at stake than just his next paycheck.
This is a pretty entertaining continuation of the series, and a far more entertaining subject. Much as werewolves have been overdone before, it's much more of a tangible threat than magical drug dealers and amps up the tension more than a human enemy would. With regards to the werewolves, it does take a fun turn and introduces several different types to worry about, from wizards who transform their bodies with magic, to humans empowering themselves with demonic items, to those unfortunate people possessed by a demon. The benefit of having all the different types be relevant at some point means that there is variation in strengths and weaknesses that accordingly varies up the action.
Additionally, it was nice to see the consequences of Harry's actions coming back to bite him. Because, much as I like him as a character, he does have an annoying tendency to try and play protector, especially with the women in his life. And that most often means withholding information that he thinks would be dangerous for them to know. Honestly, that would be so much more irritating if it weren't obvious that the people he's denying information to didn't completely ignore his attempts to push them out of danger. I hope it doesn't go much further in the series though, because although I do relish seeing how it all backfires, I can see it getting really old really fast.
Lastly, I liked seeing more of the human characters previously introduced. While I'm still a bit lukewarm towards Susan, I was more than happy to see more of Murphy and Johnny Marcone. I probably shouldn't, but there's a big part of me that adores the gentleman gangster. I look forward to seeing more of the police and Chicago's criminal underworld a lot more in further installments.

An excellent continuation of the series. There are a few issues that aren't big enough to cause concern here, but I would be disappointed to see them continue in the series as a whole. Overall, it's a fun and at times terrifying romp with werewolves. There's some good expansion on the human characters already introduced, and more hints of a larger conspiracy in the background. 4.5/5

Next review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Signing off,
Nisa.