Future planning: 2015, resolutions and what not.

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It’s 2015. Set geek levels to 11

Let me start by wishing you a happy 2015. It’s that time for New Year’s resolutions, one of the few times I take stock of what I’m doing and try to think about what I might like to do. You’re reading this now as a result of resolutions past.

To welcome 2008 I decided to start reviewing on Amazon and in 2012 I thought I’d join Twitter, where I discovered lots of lovely people talking and writing about books. And so this blog was born. To be honest until now it has been little more than just a cross posting of my Amazon reviews, but this year, I’d like to change that.

First I need to do something about the name and the URL, I set them up knowing almost nothing about what I was doing, so they’re a bit pants. I’ve been meaning to change everything to ‘Robins Books’ for ages maybe this year I’ll get around to it.

I also want to extend the scope of the blog. I’d like to include more children’s fiction. I have three boys who love books (they have little choice in this!) and I have shared lots of great books with them over the years, and I’d like to bring our favourites to the attention of as many people as possible.

Next I’d to cover some of the geekier aspects of my life. I started following Geek Dad during 2014 and found myself dipping in and out almost compulsively. So much so, I even applied to write for them during their recent request for fresh contributors. Regardless of how this goes, game-playing and science stuff are a regular feature of life in the Brooks household and I’d like share that too. Over the festive period we’ve discovered some great family games, made by small independent game makers. I’d like to highlight them, even if only in a small way.

I’d like to read more in 2015. So many great looking books fall by the wayside and I feel my reading narrowed in 2014. I also want to spend more time reading other people’s blogs and interact more on Twitter. Lots of great stuff rushes by me, and if I read it, I rarely have time to comment. Sometimes I feel like a twitcher in the bushes, looking in at the brilliant lighted living rooms of some excellent literary bloggers.

Writing some of my own original fiction has been a half-hearted dream for over ten years. I have no idea whether I’m any good at it, but unless I try to put something down on paper I’ll never know. There are some ideas burning their way out of my brain and I hope this year is the one where I can give them some shape.

Of course I’m going to have to find time for all this stuff. My youngest son will start pre-school for a whopping five hours a week, but this is hardly going to change my life. I also want to eat less, move more and (incongruously) watch more film and TV. I’ve still not watched a single episode of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones and frankly that just seems wrong. I also want to learn how to solve the Rubix cube.

There isn’t going to be a great deal of time to do these things, after all I have a wife and would like to keep her. One thing that will have to be cut down is editing time. Despite the number of heinous mutilations of the English language that appear on the blog (mainly due to my random comma insertion syndrome), I spend a large amount of time reading and rereading my posts, before publishing them. This may have to change, so I apologise in advance.

I do hope you’ll keep following, reading and hopefully commenting. I hope I can lead you to some books (and games) you otherwise may never have discovered. I have no idea how many of my resolutions I’ll manage to keep, but I’ve managed to publish this post, which I guessed I probably wouldn’t. It’s a start.

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The Last Starship – The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

the forever watchThe Forever Watch is a slow burner. It’s much harder science fiction than I normally read. I like my speculative fiction to be broad sweeps and grand ideas. Whilst the novel is certainly not short on grand ideas, it also very detail heavy on the technical aspects of its future technology. This stuff often leaves me cold, and there were a few times that I found myself thinking, ‘yeah, whatever, get on with the story.’

It reminded me of this post by Jo Walton on why some people can’t read science fiction. If you weren’t familiar with decoding this stuff, you’d give up on the Forever Watch before page fifty. From experience, I knew I’d get through it, and I did. Boy, was the pay off worth it!

The novel hinges on applications and implementation of computer code within a complex future world. There are sections that detail this code that I could have read sideways and they wouldn’t have meant any less to me. They arrested my interest in the story, pushing me out, back into the real world. For that the book can only ever be a 4* (out of the seemingly obligatory 5) read, but they didn’t break the novel completely. I could parse the stuff well enough to glean what was important, and so I was always able to work out what was going on.

This uneven reading aside, the book is excellent. Like many of the best science fiction novels, it has a simple premise; a future earth destroys itself, but before it does the last of humanity blasts into space. The Noah, a generation spacecraft is heading towards ‘New Canaan’ which it will reach in 800 years. What’s interesting is what is happening to society on its way.

Set some way into the future, humans and technology have evolved significantly. Sections of society have been specifically genetically engineered to better carry out their jobs, and society is striated according to ability, from lowly maintenance workers to command staff and uber-elite soldiers. Some humans have psionic abilities, such as telekinesis or mind-reading, and the more gifted a person is the higher up the command chain they are. The internet, or something like it, is in continuous use. The net functions using implants in the brain; it’s possible to record (and then access) everything that ever happened at any time on the ship. Total surveillance for the good of the many. You can never forget anything because it’s always possible to play back what happened. More disturbingly, it’s possible to buy other people’s memories. If you’ve had a bad day, you can relax by remembering how it feels to pet a cat you’ve never owned. Other less savoury memories are available.

This is a novel about secrets. If Asimov invented rules about robots, then Ramirez may become famous for his rules about secrets and secrecy. Whilst his society is apparently open, there are inevitably secrets; some for ill and some for the good of humanity, but which are which? The novel reminded me of Hugh Howey’s Wool, though it is a less accessible read. In the Forever Watch, there is a tiered society stuck in a tin can, the can just happens to be hurtling through space. (In truth, Wool took its cue from SF books with sealed spaceships and stuck it in the ground, so this observation is a little back to front.)

As this is a novel about secrets it would be rude to say much more about the plot. There is action, but the books is more a crime investigation feathered with political intrigue. There is layer upon layer of misdirection and misinformation. It’s a cliché, but reading the Forever Watch is like reading an onion; yes, it may even make you cry.

Characterisation is strong. An excellent female lead, with strong support from a colourful and varied cast. This is a hard scifi, as I said, a little too dense for me sometimes, but very well done. There are lots of interesting questions about society, technology and the use of information. Also the perils of transparency and the border between humanity and machine.  The world building is excellent and the plot construction intricate, with each reveal taking the breath away. The denouement is stunning and left me reeling.

The Forever Watch is high calibre storytelling. Due to its heavy technical content, I cannot recommend it unreservedly, but if you are even a semi regular reader of science fiction, I think you’ll find much to enjoy. An excellent speculation on the evolution of technology, society and the entire human race.

Many Thanks for the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of this book. 

Three go adventuring again – The Obsidian Pebble by Rhys A Jones

obsidianSometimes a simple story, well told, is all it takes to make a good book. I’ve just written my review of 2014, and it’s full of books with interesting structures and reworkings of old ides, but sometimes all you want is some heroes, some bad guys and a mystery to solve. The Obsidian Pebble is just such a book.

It’s a children’s book, roughly 10+, so by necessity plot and deed are comparatively simple. The story zips along and the characters involved all feel real, which takes Rhys Jones’ first book in his Artefact Quintet a long way. The main cast is the standard 3 player HRH (Harry, Ron, Hermione) set up. Two boys and a girl always seems to work in this type of novel. There is the usual offset of school work against mystery solving, and there are problems both at school and home with bullies and unfair teachers, unpaid bills and absent fathers. More poignant is the black dog of depression that hangs over the lead character’s mother. The possibility of the mental collapse of a parent is far more scary than whatever shadowy forces lurk inside the old house in the story.

The novel opens on Halloween. Oz Chambers and his friends are going to sleep over in the oldest wing of his family home, Penwurt. The house was a former orphanage, and had prior to that been owned by a number of adventuresome types. Adventuresome types who often didn’t make it back from their escapades. The last person that failed to return was Oz’s father. When the trio hear footsteps in the abandoned wing of the house, an investigation ensues. They begin to reveal the tumultuous history of the house, and a number of powerful artefacts associated with it.

Money is tight for Oz and his mother, so they are forced to rent out rooms in their ramshackle house. This is the perfect excuse to have a number of different characters hanging around, all with questionable motives, some more obviously sinister than others. Jones plays his deck of antagonists well, and whilst his finesse his unlikely to throw adult readers, his younger ones will probably be fooled by the misdirection. The house is wonderfully atmospheric, and the author’s drip feeding of its history, keeps you reading. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot and the final reveals are satisfactory with plenty of interest created for the next book in the series.

The sections in the school are diverting, possibly even a distraction from the main event. They’re not terribly exciting in themselves, but they ground the characters with some real life problems and scrapes in the playground. They also add light relief with some BBC drama (Grange Hill) snotty bullies, who may or may not get their comeuppance by the end of the novel.

So there is nothing remarkable here, but does that matter? If you keep things simple, you have to do them well to make the book good. There’s nowhere to hide if your storytelling is weak. Jones knows his craft and delivers an engaging and entertaining story. My 9 year old is probably a bit young for this yet, but next year I’ll add it to his reading pile, happy in the knowledge he’s sure to be entertained.

The author sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

For other great books with Obsidian in the title see this one by Catherine Fisher

‘Tis the Season – My best books of 2014

whatmakesAnother year has passed with lots of books read. My first thoughts on 2014 is that it was inferior vintage to 2013, but looking at my running list of best books, I see there are 17 this year compared with last year’s 18. Almost no difference, yet I still feel that this year wasn’t as good as the previous twelve months. I think it’s because this year there has has been a lack of consistency in quality. I’ve read a number of books that are merely OK and more books than usual that are downright terrible. I’ve read some good books this year, I’ve read some great books, but I’ve read more books than usual that I hope never to see again.

Let’s forget the bad, and talk about the good.

kindredMy best books this year are dominated by science fiction and fantasy, and it’s perhaps appropriate that the one non-fiction title on the list (and indeed probably the only one I read this year) is Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book so Good, a collection of essays from TOR.com in which Walton rereads some of her favourite books. The anthology is a wonderfully enthusiastic peon to books and reading. There were books I’d read, books I wanted to read, books I’d never heard of and now want to read, and the occasional book I’m not going to read even if you paid me. It added about fifteen titles to my TBR pile and prompted me to start my own one man book club. This led me to read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, conveniently reissued by Headline. This is a time travel novel that explores attitudes to slavery and the insidiousness of oppression.  It’s every bit as good as Walton said it would be.

planesrunnerIan McDonald’s Everness series has given me a great deal of pleasure this year. All three books are highly entertaining. These are aimed at the YA market, so zip along. McDonald’s device gives him the opportunity to create billions of alternate Earths, where almost anything can happen. He makes great use of this, delivering the unexpected, the intriguing and the downright scary. An altogether more serious science fiction read is Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark. Set in the near future, the book chronicles the struggle of an autistic computer savant as he tries to navigate a world he is one step disconnected from. Thought provoking and moving, the book debates whether autism is a curse or a blessing, and if it could be cured, should it be?

copperThis year is the year in which I finally found some Fantasy novels that made me happy. Richard Ford’s Shattered Crown and Jen Williams’ Copper Promise are epic fantasies cut from the same cloth as David Gemmell. But where Gemmell fashioned the same pair of curtains over and over, these two have run up something altogether different, pulling swords and sorcery firmly into the twenty-first century.  Excellent characterisation with mixed motivations, and interesting plots blended with bowel loosening excitement made these hard to put down (except to prevent the occasional accident). The Shattered Crown is sequel to the equally good, Herald of the Storm and the Copper Promise has the best depiction of a dungeon crawl I have ever read. It had me itching to play D&D right then and there (for those unsure, this is a compliment).

Away from SFF, there were slim pickings. 2014 saw a slump in the amount of non-genre fiction I read. Since starting the blog, I seem to have returned to my reading roots. This is perhaps because the SFF community is so vibrant on Twitter. I keep hearing about so many good books, that I just want to keep reading them. Backed up with some very lovely people in PR departments prepared to let me loose on their books, and I have lots of easily accessible speculative and fantastic fiction to sink my gnashers into.

in bloomEliott Hall’s Chandleresque The Rapture is excellent detective noir, but as it’s set in the near future, it doesn’t really count as being away from science fiction. I read bestselling juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars and was as bewitched as everybody else. I also read Matthew Crow’s British take on the bastard that is cancer. In Bloom is not as artful as Green’s novel, but to me it seemed more real. It’s a deeply moving portrait of illness, but above all it’s about the power of family love and the bond between brothers. A slim and deeply affecting read.

enchantedAnother slender novel is Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted. It’s brutal and unflinching and not at all comfortable to read. A devastating critique of the American penal system, The Enchanted ought to be compulsory reading for anybody charged with the care and rehabilitation of people sent to prison. Tim Leach made a welcome return to my reading list, with his follow up to his peerless historical novel The Last King of Lydia. The King and the Slave is a direct sequel, and whilst it didn’t quite reach the heady heights of its predecessor, Leach showed once again how to make ancient history read like current affairs.

All of these novels were good. They gave me great joy to read, but in 2014 four books towered over the rest. I find it almost impossible to rank them, but I think one just about pips the others to the post for my novel of the year.

the martianThe most readable book of 2014 was Andy Weir’s The Martian. A book I almost didn’t read.  It is science fiction in its purest form. Fiction about science. Robinson Crusoe on Mars; survival in a unbelievably harsh environment, with little more than ingenuity and disco music to help it’s hero survive. It is the closest thing to unputdownable I’ve read in many a year.

dreamingLavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming, is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s seamless, like a master-worked puzzle box. I could only marvel out how the novel’s variety of influences and themes dovetailed together without any visible joins. It’s a story within a story; a Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz imagines an alternate Earth where Hitler is ousted from power and is now a private detective in pre-war London. It shouldn’t work but it does, brilliantly and it elevates Lavie Tidhar towards the the top of my must-read author list.

my real childrenJo Walton probably crowns that list right now, not only for 2012’s beautiful Among Others, but for this years equally sublime My Real Children. A Sliding Doors novel where acceptance or not of a marriage proposal leads a young woman down very different paths. Both narratives take place in familiar yet alien realities, and like Tidhar’s novel, the real and the unreal blend seamlessly. A wonderful portrayal of love in all its forms, this novel is science fiction for people who hate science fiction.

SmilersFair_VISUAL1

And the winner is…

My final choice, and therefore my book of 2014 is Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene. A second world fantasy, set a in world without heroes. The novel centres around the wonderful Smiler’s Fair, an endlessly travelling carnival, that brings with it joy, and leaves despair in its wake. It’s a genesis story, that examines the power of myth and how it might be established. It has a host of characters all brilliantly realised and its plot is fresh, innovative and very clever. By the end I was utterly enthralled. Despite casting aside many of the genre’s conventions with a success few authors achieve, it also manages to be comfortingly familiar. Something about Levene’s style reminded me of my teenage addiction – The Belgariad by David Eddings. Levene reworks Eddings’ black and white simplicity to give it multiple shades of grey, all the time remaining wonderfully readable. The resulting novel made me feel like I was thirteen again, had me enchanted throughout and leaves things on a humdinger of a cliffhanger that leaves me desperate for book two.

So there it is a rambling account of my literary year. If you made it this far, thank you for reading. If you are one the lovely PR people who sends me books, many many thanks for supporting my habit. If you’ve been following the blog, thank you again. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and maybe discovered some books that you otherwise mightn’t. I hope 2015 brings you all many exciting reads, and I’ll continue cataloguing mine here. As one recent commenter urged me to do, I’ll ensure I keep being honest.

Thanks for reading!

 

Beauty in Madness – A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

dreamingLavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming is a Chinese puzzle box created by a master craftsman. It’s made from the highest quality materials, fitted together seamlessly and polished with great care and attention. Opening the box reveals the unexpected and leaves the reader with an exultant sense of wonder as they study the magic of its construction. Yes. I liked this book.

Tidhar’s novels somehow ought not to work – Osama sets up Osama bin Laden as a fictional vigilante and The Violent Century reinvents WWII with superheroes. Both are exceptional pieces of writing. Challenging, entertaining and thought-provoking. A Man Lies Dreaming continues the trend. It features a novel within a novel; Shomer, a prisoner of war, escapes the brutality of his life in Auschwitz by imagining a story. Before the war Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. His new story, a tale that exists only in his head, makes Adolf Hitler an exile in London, in 1939, having been ousted from his country by the communists. Europe is in turmoil, standing on the brink of war. ‘Wolf’ is an almost forgotten footnote of history; a gumshoe, a dick, a detective for hire on the streets of London.

The novel is a wonderful blend of styles, filled with reference and homage. There are obvious comparisons with Chandler and Hammet, but Tidhar borrows from Holocaust literature and modern popular culture too. This is speculative fiction, written from a perspective of a writer looking forward from the past. Tidhar expertly foreshadows trends and attitudes that are current today. Most notably, in his depiction of Oswald Mosley as a viable candidate for prime minister. In a world without a fascist Germany, British blackshirts have a chance to rise to the top. This feels cleverly plausible; Britain is, I think, a largely tolerant nation, but somehow you get the feeling that whilst we’d all deny it, it might not take much to push us over into fascism (probably starting with forming an orderly queue). Tidhar cleverly and overtly borrows from UKIP party rhetoric to make his point. Anybody who is thinking of voting for them should probably read this book, though the point the author is making is probably far too subtle.

There are some beautiful speculations on the world of literature and film, which are intriguing and entertaining in equal measure. There is a great vein of humour running through the book including a famous film being reimagined to involve F Scott Fitzgerald and Humphrey Bogart. The multitude of these small but joyous moments give the book wonderful depth and texture. All this is underpinned by strong research and a passion for the subject matter. There are several pages of end-notes that peel back the layers of fact and fiction, revealing the seamless construction of the novel.

Whilst it has lighter moments, the heart of the book is deeply sad. Some books use the horror of holocaust like a sledgehammer to convey the sense of tragedy, without really making any real attempt to articulate the suffering, misery and cruelty inside the camps. Here the horror is dealt with gently, very much on an individual scale. The ease of which humans can become beasts is depicted in subtle shades and the novel is all the more powerful for it.

A Man Lies Dreaming had me reading late into the night, which very few novels do these days. My two-year old, five o’clock alarm call, usually puts paid to that, but I could not put this book down. I had that sense that comes with the very best of novels; hurtling towards the end desperate to finish, whilst all the time hoping the story never runs out. It many ways it doesn’t. The novel’s ending is an open one. We know what happens, and yet we don’t, for who really knows what goes on inside a man as he lays dreaming? This is a wonderful novel that I would recommend to everybody (though possibly not if you’re squeamish or dislike graphic sex scenes). It’s beautifully crafted, but there is no trick to revealing the magic inside, just lift the pages and start turning.

Many Thanks to Anne at Hodder & Stoughton for sending me a copy of this wonderful book. 

 

 

The Chaffinch? – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinch-largeSix hundred pages into The Goldfinch, I realised that reading Donna Tartt is like childbirth. That’s why she only brings novels out every ten years. Time polishes your memory. You yearn for the scintillating prose, the cute turn of phrase, the scholarly tone. You forget the excruciating agony and the fervent wish that it would all be over. You forget swearing to whatever deity is listening that you will never do this again.

So here I am (again).

It’s always tricky reviewing books by glittering literati, particularly when you didn’t like the book. The Goldfinch has nearly 1,000 5* reviews on Amazon, so people clearly enjoyed it. I’m left wondering what I missed, because it is probably the worst book I’ve read in the last 10 years.

To be clear, it’s neither the most shambolic or poorly written. There’s no hackneyed dialogue and cardboard characters; heaven knows I’ve read a few of those over the years. There are some beautiful passages in the Goldfinch, but it is so overblown. It’s a monumentally massive read for such little reward. It barely thrills, it certainly doesn’t enlighten. It revealed nothing to me about the human condition, which I consider to be one of the most important jobs of a work of ‘Great American Fiction’. The two messages I took home from the book, is that ‘life is shit’ and ‘ great art outlives its creators’. Hardly earth-shattering revelations.

The book is detail heavy, not in itself an issue. It’s hard to imagine that all the subjects covered would appeal to all readers, unless you were a master cabinet maker with an keen interest in recreational drugs, but nevertheless the novel’s richness is part of its appeal. The problem for me is that the detail is pointless. The story that punctuates throughout is flimsy and predicated on coincidence; something I really hate. The final third of the novel is particularly weak. There is far too much wallowing in self-pity, several horrible telegraphed deus ex machina (or perhaps the opposite of – ‘No really, you must give me your passport – nothing bad will happen to it. I’ll lock it in the glovebox. See NOTHING BAD CAN POSSIBLY HAPPEN.’ I paraphrase, obviously). The final ten pages are hideous pseudo-philosophy, included, I assume, to give the book some heft, but actually make the lead character sound like he’s trying to crawl up his own arse.

I am left to question the point of this novel. I don’t understand how somebody could publish it as is, let alone pontificate about its brilliance. Perhaps the kerching of cash registers drowned out the dissenters at Little Brown. Perhaps many readers and reviewers were too embarrassed to say they didn’t like it; compelled to like it because it was written by the author of the hallowed Secret History. Perhaps it’s just shit. Perhaps this is a really good novel that I have failed to understand. Maybe, but probably not. There are some gold ears of corn here, but there is significantly more chaff.