Category Archives: Books

Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, & an Audible trial

So, like every other Amazon user I’ve been bombarded with ads for Audible for a little while. They’re tedious and overwhelming and I’ve generally ignored them. But since I’ve started listening to audiobooks whilst I run (or at least, using eBook apps like Kindle to read to me), I finally had cause to consider it more seriously. The free month trial sucked me in and I kicked off with Tigerman, the latest book from Nick Harkaway – an author I’ve respected and admired since the Gone Away World blew my mind a few years back.

It was a wonderful experience.

OK, listening to the audiobook whilst running wasn’t quite as relaxing as nodding off to it as I did as a child, but at least I didn’t have to rewind the tapes the next day to find where I’d dropped off so I could pick up the story again. But it’s amazing how you can lose yourself in a story in a way I’ve not been able to with music (not when exercising, anyway) for years. The voice acting by Matt Bates (this guy, I think) added a dimension to the reading I didn’t quite remember from the audiobooks of my youth… an additional pleasure, perhaps one I can appreciate more having grown accustomed to text-to-speech engines reading stuff to me in a robotic monotone (although Microsoft’s Cortana TTS engine is substantially better than Apple’s iPhone one).

It’s reawakened a love of the audiobook and – having planned to cancel the Audible trial, and gotten as far as hitting ‘cancel / due to the cost’ – I’ve found myself being sucked in by a three month at half price offer. We’ll see if I stick with it beyond that, but Mike Carey’s ‘Girl with all the gifts’ is next on my list and – as an added incentive, to make use of my one credit (audiobook) per month, I need to run through it over the weekends. With a run time of 13 hours, that means at least 120km clocked up on the roads in September…!

Also inspired to find the kids some good audiobooks to listen to…!

Four months of reading, TV and film…

In the four months since I went dark on the blog I’ve been ploughing through all sorts of fiction.

On the literary front, I ploughed through the back-catalogue of Jack Campbell, reading through his militaristic space-opera. Readable, entertaining, and demolished at great pace, if not of any great literary merit. I read the Peter F Hamilton short story collection, Manhattan in Reverse (some great concepts in there), two Ben Aaronovitch PC Grant novels (great dark urban fantasy set in London, reminding me lots of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books), the latest Terry Pratchett (wonderful, wonderful – more sophisticated and engaging that some of his other recent Discworld books), and a book by a client’s wife, Death at the Chateau Bremont – a fun murder mystery set in the South of France. I’ve got through more of Brandon Sanderson’s back catalogue (including the fantasy/Western the Alloy of Law – great fun!), and now I have a stack of books to get through from Amazon’s 12 Days of Kindle (currently reading the End Specialist about a world in which death is cured (99p on Kindle!), and the final Eragon novel) and from various Christmas presents (including the new Holmes, and some exciting fantasy and SF from Arvind).

TV-wise, thanks to my brother I’ve gotten into Modern Family (funny ‘cos its true), Community (funny ‘cos its off the wall and geeky), and via other recommendations/my own recognizance, Transformers Prime (after the horror of Michael Bay, this was a true wonder of storytelling – absolutely brilliant), Young Justice, Batman: the Brave and the Bold (thanks Arvy, brilliant) and Fringe (trashy but entertaining). I’ve dipped into Terra Nova (meh, Outcasts with dinosaurs) and Parks and Recreation too (not sure yet). I’ve been enjoying the Christmas specials too – Doctor Who nearly made me cry, Eastenders had me on the edge of my seat, and the AbFab specials gave me pause to giggle. Our sole cinematic expedition was to Mission Impossible 4 (a great ad for BMW, and fun as you’d expect it to be), and we watched Kung Fu Panda 2 on DVD on the bank holiday Monday. The Inbetweeners Movie awaits me on DVD…

So I’ve not been idling from that perspective, at least! More recommendations / comments on my reading/viewing history appreciated!

@Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation

February 11I started this book on Friday and finished it on Sunday, despite a busy weekend, which tells you a little about how accessible, readable, compelling and, well, short, Mr Scalzi’s latest novel is. Like The God Engines, it’s a departure from his militaristic sci-fi mainstay, but again – as with The God Engines – to excellent effect.

A reboot of a sci-fi novel I haven’t read, I was relying on Scalzi’s characteristic style to make the story entertaining and he doesn’t disappoint. Whilst carrying all the hallmarks of a traditional space-opera, the lead protagonist is a lawyer (disbarred, but not for not knowing the law, as he’s anxious to let people know) and as a consequence the whole book runs more like a particularly strong episode of Boston Legal than a sci-fi space saga, complete with morally ambiguous James-Spader-esque courtroom shenanigans.

The story follows the discovery of a rich seam of natural resources on a colony world in tandem with the discovery of a potentially sentient species, and the legal battles and political maneuvering that follows to carry the story through to its inevitable conclusion.

It’s a lot of fun, highly recommended.

Rule 34 and high concept sci-fi

I love the way Charlie Stross writes; he uses his books to test a theory, and nowhere is this more true and more evident than in his Halting State / Rule 34 novels.

Whilst superficially the stories follow a pair of criminal investigations, the theses tested include the implications of a world of augmented-reality gaming and digital infrastructure gone mad, and examining the nature of artificial intelligence and the potential evolution of spam-filtration into possibly sentient moral arbitration. It’s absolutely fascinating and terrifyingly possible, and when discussed via the mechanism of a criminal investigation and some very weird people, thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining.

Anyway, have finished Rule 34 now. Highly, highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to the next concept Mr Stross decides to test in his Scottish near-future world.

The experience reminds of when I first ploughed through Asimov’s Foundation series – whilst that ended up a fairly typical space-opera, the series initially was a testing ground for a deterministic philosophy of human society and a theoretical science. At least, that’s how I saw it when it was the subject of my BA philosophy of science thesis…

What will become of the books?

My newly organized bookshelfA minor lamentation, noted as I read this on Simon Waldman’s blog; as passionate as I am about all things digital, I will miss the sheer physical presence of some of my stuff as it evolves its way off the physical plane.

Not DVDs or CDs; the convenience factor of the digital format there is just vast – but with books, the comforting, colourful, aesthetically pleasing albeit inevitably dusty presence across the room as they sit solidly in a bookshelf… well, their future absence will be noted.

I do occasionally still buy print books – for anything Amanda needs to read, or Emily (my girls are old school and the tactility of books is awesome and necessary for Em) – and occasionally for a long running series of books or novel I know I’ll end up sharing.

So Terry Pratchett, Raymond Feist et al, will continue to be bought in print. Because I’m faintly obsessive compulsive, I’ll also probably complete any series of novels I started to buy in physical form – Peter F Hamilton’s ‘Void’ trilogy was one case in point, despite the enormity of those hardbacks. Fortunately, I read my way through all of George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series in digital format, so  was spared the 1,000 page monster of the new book as a bookshelf counterweight.

But there are some shelves in our house that may end up with ornaments and niknackery on them instead of books. Which – as someone that’s spent a decade without enough shelf-space – is something I find strange in the extreme.

Hitchhiker’s Guide iPhone and iPad app to launch

miek's hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyMost people who know me that even in the reams of sci-fi and fantasy I consume there are a few authors that have a special place in my heart. Douglas Adams is one of those; notwithstanding his personal history with my family – my brother co-adapted Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency years ago and I sat next to him at a performance of it in Oxford – Arthur Dent is perhaps the greatest sci-fi/fantasy semi-hero ever. He’s the British equivalent of Spider-man, trading witty banter for sarcastic whinges and web-slinging for tea. And powers for a dressing gown. Otherwise, the same.

I’m not sure how to feel about the news that an H2G2 app is coming. I have a feeling that 90% of the stuff you put into it will come out with some generic, smart-arsey, “we don’t have an article on that” response, because – after all – how could the app genuinely be about everything in the galaxy? And – if we’re being true to Douglas’ narrative – the entry for Earth as a whole – it’s people, history, plant-life, etc., – simply reads ‘Mostly harmless’ – then what use is it on this planet? It’s been a while since I saw a pan-galactic Gargle blaster on the menu at any unfashionable London bar. Certainly not one that uses real gold.

Anyway, it’s piqued my curiosity. I gather the people making it are true gaming experts, so might have successfully ‘gamified’ the guide… but I’ll believe it when I see it. Read more over on Wired.

Charles Stross’ Rule 34

rule34Having taken my time with A dance with dragons I was worried it would take me a while to get into my next read, but as I picked Charlie Stross’ Rule 34, I’ve thankfully fallen straight into it (bonus: Kindle edition is cheaper than paperback!).

The follow up to another favourite near-future read of mine by Stross, Halting State, the world of Rule 34 is a near-future Scotland in which a few polis protagonists cope with a seedy, run down, cyberpunk dystopia – filled with semi-believable technology (AR glasses and overlays, 3D printers and the associated black market, etc etc) – which are absolutely fascinating. And Charlie tells of them with his easy, occasionally impenetrable (due to the need to interpret a written interpretation of strong Scottish accents) prose and dialogue.

A ready pleasure.

Unfortunately, at 360 pages, it’s not going to last long. So I’m going to need more book recommendations…

Lord Eddard Stark’s parenting qualities

Eddard-StarkLast night Amanda was away and I was feeling slightly ill – so an evening of extreme vegetation was called for – recorded / downloaded episodes of Chuck and Smallville. A proper veg-out.

Was amused by Chuck’s late season-4 line: "Come on, Eddard, that’s a crazy idea. You can’t let your sons keep direwolves!"

It was a piece of uniquely poor parenting, come to think of it. Eddard, for all his lordly gravitas and honour, caring fatherly looks and love, made a number of poor parenting decisions. Em is never getting a direwolf – maybe a puppy, but that’s where I draw the line!

Here are a few of his parenting highlights:

  • letting all his children, age 4-17, keep direwolves, giant man eating wolves
  • letting his eldest (bastard) son make a permanent, unalterable life choice at the age of 17
  • bringing his two daughters into the most dangerous city in the world

Anyone else pick out any other particularly poor parenting decisions by Lord Stark?

Also, this 16 bit RPG summary of season one of Game of Thrones is brilliant:

A Dance with Dragons – nearly finished

The-Wall-game-of-thrones-20412535-1920-1080I’ll keep this spoiler free, don’t worry. Just a quick not to say: I’m absolutely loving the latest book. Totally worth the wait (admittedly I only read the other Song of Ice and Fire books last year, but still…) Mr R R Martin’s story has such incredible scope, action, intrigue, convolutions and resolutions – it’s an amazingly satisfying read. Creating the tableau of the Seven Kingdoms was complicated enough, but delivering such a wide range of characters which the readers can find themselves invested in (who thought anyone would care what would happen to Theon Greyjoy after the events of the previous books?) is a truly remarkable feat.

I tip my proverbial hat to you sir.

As I get to within the last couple of hundred pages (yes, it’s a long book) my only worry is what to read next to take away the pain of the wait until volume six comes out…

Internal consistency in a world full of zombies

The Walking Dead - Comic Artwork 10I was talking to a former colleague about ‘trash fiction’ and he was lamenting that he didn’t enjoy it as much as he used to when he was younger. By ‘trash’ fiction we both meant slightly different things – popular action/thriller novels for Dazzla, my staple of tier 2 sci-fi and fantasy for me.

My comment was – as long as the stories are internally coherent and the worlds interesting, I still enjoy them. That’s part of the joy of being a sci-fi/fantasy fan – you get to suspend your disbelief and take some time off to dwell in a totally different universe.

Sometimes, what’s compelling is the similarity with our own universe. This is the case with the Walking Dead – there’s very little supernatural mysticism in the way the tale is told. Something – indeterminate but presumably natural – has caused the dead to walk, but it relates to the brain stem and you have to stop it with a physical intervention (i.e. destroy the brainstem). You can’t banish it, or exorcise it, or cast a spell and make it go away.

Unfortunately one of the things rooting stories in the real world does is allow for semi-rational analysis. For example…. the zombies are moving, movement takes energy. The zombies might draw on latent energy stores in their own bodies, but beyond that they need nourishment to replenish energy stocks. Nourishment for zombies comes from humans. The humans are (mostly) dead – ergo no food for zombies. Therefore in time, zombies must surely run out of energy and stop moving (as indeed happens in 28 Days Later)… And yet, in the comics, nearly two years has passed since the Zombie apocalypse and there’s still herds of them moving around. So that jars, slightly.

The second issue seems to be that whenever someone falls victim to a zombie or two, they get eaten alive. That being the premise – humans are food. So the question emerges – where do new zombies come from? If a new zombie is only spawned when an old zombie gets full, then the apocalypse would likely be less complete and have been more controllable.

Perhaps this is overanalysing the situation. Or perhaps it all feeds into the inexorably drawn out exposition plan for the authors of the Walking Dead, who’ve spent 7 years telling the story and never given a hint away as to the cause of Zombie-ism…