Category: Reading

Book Review: Gemina (Illuminae Files 2)

Book Review: Gemina (Illuminae Files 2)

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Like the first book in the series, I went for the audio version again, and for the same reason. The epistolary format of the book (most of the storytelling is done in terms of letters, reports, chat session transcriptions, and so on) doesn’t lend itself well to reading for me. Had I looked past the format of the printed book, beautiful as it is, I never would have gotten through this book by reading it. But as a full-cast audio production, it works, and, as it turns out, it works pretty well for me.

This is a good spot to apologize in advance if this review turns out to be full of comparisons to the first book, but there are a lot of easy comparisons to draw. In a lot of ways, it’s the same book.

Gemina has a very similar plot to Illuminae. Teen romance with SF trappings, more details on the corporate war, chased by commandoes in a malfunctioning space station instead of by space ships wanting to blow your malfunctioning ship up, and replace the zombies with mind-sucking, hallucinogenic parasites.

I have the same problems with tech in Gemina as I had with it Illuminae. With only a few exceptions, this is all stuff that might be easily available to military today, or even off the shelf. There’s not a lot here to make me believe it takes place in the 26th century other than the technological wizardry of wormhole travel and computers big enough and powerful enough that we can actually manage true AI.

I have a lot of the same problems with the character presentation. These aren’t teenagers from 550 years or so in the future, but people who would be believable in any high school drama today, albeit each with a certain skill or trait ratcheted up to 11.

Again, the censoring of swear words seems ridiculous to me, a strange double standard of current Western society. Plenty of death and destruction to be found here, some of it detailed and gruesome, but I might be offended if someone drops an f-bomb (see what I did there?) and we can’t risk that. We’re supposed to understand that these documents and records are being presented as evidence in a court room, but since when is evidence censored?

And again, it’s the voice acting that carries things. A straight narration wouldn’t have worked very well for this story, and probably would have left me flat. But the full-cast audio succeeds tremendously, and after I was through being irritated at the redacted swear words, it let me sink into the story a lot more than I would have otherwise.

Hanna is not Kady. Nick is not Ezra. That’s both okay and a good thing. I think they’re both built better as characters than the couple in the first book, and the circumstances bringing them together have to work harder to do so.

I liked that AIDAN was back, if in a limited way. He’s a little reformed now, and doing what he’s told, so long as Kady gives the orders, but still a reflection of the scary AI who killed thousands in the first book. A good use of him near the end to follow the story track with slight twists in two different universes. Tough for even him, noting that it was a bit confusing.

The only real issue I had with the story itself was the use of Pascal’s Wager by the incredibly intelligent, psychopathic AI to convince a human to trust him? Asking, “what if you’re wrong” with religious overtones? Pascal’s Wager is a tiny piece of philosophy so riddled with holes it can’t be taken seriously, but somehow it is here, and somehow it’s the thing that wins the argument to let AIDAN do what needs to be done.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars. I enjoyed the story, but couldn’t shake the feeling through the whole thing that the story being told was one I’d already enjoyed. I’m hesitant about the third book. I’m worried we’ll get the same book again next time, just with a different teen couple.

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Book Review: The Red Knight

Book Review: The Red Knight

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So, I know I’m going against the overall grain on this one, but this was only okay.

An alternate medieval Europe with an intrusive “wild” and variants on a lot of different European creatures and fey. Mix in some magic and religion that shows some similarities to what we have and most of whose adherents take seriously (although most of them are curiously dismissive of the almost casual blasphemy and dislike of god of the main protagonist), and you have the foundation of a well-built world.

The writing is mostly solid, with just about the right amount of description for me, but occasionally a bit repetitious. “As he approached the ditch, he tried to figure out how to get over the ditch.” I’m making that one up, and the sentences involved are usually longer, but each time it happens, it’s a little jarring.

I also found that there are too many different POVs. Some of them aren’t even really relevant to the story, at best just adding a bit of extra motivation to another minor character’s not very relevant story. Others are very clearly just setups for future stories and don’t really do anything to affect the main story. And a lot of the scenes are very short before we jump to a new character in a new scene.

A side result is that there wasn’t a lot of time spent trying to make me care about most of those characters. While those of both genders were balanced and well-realized—no cardboard cutouts for anyone we spent time in their heads—I didn’t have enough time with most of them to care about what happened to any of them.

One of the more frequent POV characters is probably a fully-realized stereotype of what an actual arrogant knight was supposed to have been back in the dark ages. You’re supposed to hate him, I think, and I did, but to the extent that it was a near thing, after the first couple of scenes with him, to read his scene rather than skip over it and get back to a POV I didn’t actually detest.

I did like that the bad guys weren’t exactly that. The various species standing in for what have become standard tropes had just as much on-screen realization as the human minor characters. Not just faceless members of the evil horde of darkness, but following the Big Bad for reasons, even if those reasons aren’t necessarily human-understandable ones as far as the characters in the book might be concerned.

Battle scenes are filled with realism and often epic in scope, and the magic system is probably a actually system, though we really don’t see enough of it in this first book to understand the basic rules yet, just that there are basic rules and structures the users have to work in.

The book almost has two climaxes, with the second stretching out quite a bit across a whole lot of different characters, and the denouement drags on for a really, really long time. Its clear purpose is to set up major pieces of background for future books in the series.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars. The pace of the story is slow except when they’re fighting, which is a lot. Too many points of view take too long to come together and some of them never do, at least not in this first book of the series. A quarter of the text of the book could probably disappear without any effect on the main story and I think the book would probably be a lot stronger for it.

We’re about to have the fifth book in print, but it seems unlikely at this point that I’ll continue on to the second.

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The Goodreads Rating Scale And Why I Like It

The Goodreads Rating Scale And Why I Like It

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The Goodreads rating scale puts things from one to five stars. Hover over the stars on a books page, and you’ll be shown simple comments from 5 down to 1:

5 – it was amazing

4 – really liked it

3 – liked it

2 – it was okay

1 – didn’t like it

On the surface of things, this seems a bit limiting, especially when it seems to have four levels of positive feedback and only one level of negative. When writing reviews, I sometimes use half marks in between, but the basic scale works.

To add a bit of detail in the way I look at things:

5 – When is this author’s next book due out, dammit?

4 – I’m very much looking forward to the next book, especially if it’s in a series. I can wait, with varying degrees of patience.

3 – I have no issues recommending this as a decent book, but probably won’t bother with the next book in the series if there is one. Life is too short and there are too many potential books I’ll probably love.

2 – Meh. Not something I’ll recommend to anyone else. Seems unlikely I’ll read another book by the same author unless the concept really grabs me. Not following the series any further.

1 – WTF did I just read? Also, all DNFs get 1 star.

And, like I said, I do sometimes use half marks when writing reviews. Those are for a little grey area in between.

4.5 = Fantastic read. Going looking for other works by the author.

3.5 = good without being great. But then I have to decide which way to round when I click the stars for the actual rating.

2.5 = not really that great overall, but had some cool moments/scenes/characters.

1.5 = Managed to finish the book, but I’m really not happy about it.

So I like the scale, even if I feel the need to split the hairs a little finer sometimes, because it does provide enough breadth of rating, mostly, based on how strongly I’d recommend a book, or how I feel about the writing when I get to the end, and it doesn’t get too complicated.

If 3 stars is the mythical average, because it’s in the middle, then you just need to get used to the idea that 3 stars means a good book to the person who wrote the review. Your mileage may vary.

And it should.

Be well, everyone.

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Book Review: Star Trek Movie Memories

Book Review: Star Trek Movie Memories

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Having read Star Trek Memories, I almost immediately moved to its sequel, published the following year, which I suddenly realized was more than twenty years in the past. Movie Memories, written just a couple of years after Star Trek VI finished production, would have covered a longer time period, at least calendrically if not in terms of actual production time, but most of it would certainly have been fresher in Shatner’s mind.

I say almost because I decided I didn’t want to overdose, so I let a couple of months go by before picking up the sequel volume. A couple like nine or ten.

This isn’t the same kind of book as the first volume. Well, it is still a memoir, but this time Shatner presents the memories much more chronologically, in a very linear fashion moving from one movie to the next. There are still plenty of anecdotes, and he’s still going to other people for bits and pieces of Trek history he didn’t know.

But, covering seven movies across fifteen years, this memoir proceeds at breakneck speed to get everything done. I learned things about each of the movies, and Shatners feelings about the process, production, and many things connected to each of them. I would have like to learn more. And, in fact, it actually covers a larger time period than that, giving us a glimpse of the harder times between the series and the movies, and Shatner’s work and work ethic getting through them.

For me, I feel like the most interesting parts of the book were his reminiscences around Star Trek V, a film considered disappointing by so many fans, and Star Trek: Generations.

For me, Star Trek V is not a bad movie, though it’s not a particularly good Star Trek movie. I can find things to enjoy in it even as I find things that disappoint me. Shatner spelled out his own disappointments in the way production went and all of the compromises he and the production team had to make to get the job done. The initial vision had been so much grander, but events and budget restrictions, and artificial time constraints conspired against the film.

Star Trek: Generations brought us the death of Captain Kirk. (Should there have been a spoiler alert there? It’s been 23 years.) I really enjoyed Shatner’s discussions on how he felt about that, and all the things he experienced and felt running up to it. This book was released on the heels of the movie and death of a character he’d played for more than 25 years must still have been fresh and raw.

But his memories of both of those films, along with all of the others, went by too quick.

Overall rating: 4 stars. I finished my review of Star Trek Memories with two sentences. I just wish it was a lot longer. Although there is a sequel. I think I’d like to echo that for this one. I wish it was a long longer. I also wish there was another sequel.

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My Award Winners Quest

My Award Winners Quest

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Stacks of books

I don’t know that I’ve really spelled it out, but you may have noticed over the last few months that most of what I’m posting is book reviews and the occasional writing report. I’m trying to broaden things out again, but I thought I might explain something behind the book reviews, at least.

You see, I’m trying to read, or at least attempt to read, every novel-length winner of the major speculative fiction awards. Well, the Science Fiction and Fantasy ones, anyway.

Why, you may ask, and it’s a good question. Sometimes, with how tough a slog some of the books have been, and the DNF books involved, I wonder the same thing.

I suppose, fundamentally, I’m just trying to broaden my horizons. We all get into reading ruts now and then, consuming the same handful of authors and just doing re-reads of things we already like. As I get older (in my late 40s now), I’m less inclined to do re-reads, and some (many) of my favourite authors have left us so that I’ve had fewer opportunities for new works by that group.

That means I have to find new favourites. I thought that the award winners might be an interesting place to start. Many of the names you find in those lists have long careers and lots of work available. Plus, it will expose me to things I never would have thought of trying on my own.

Sure, I can randomly pick things to read that I think look interesting (and I still do a lot of that, with a decent success rate), but it’s not enough. It will never be enough. To borrow a quote from Lemony Snicket that I borrow too often, “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.” That pile needs to be bigger, although hopefully having it fall on me won’t be the cause of not finishing it.

But yes, the results are mixed.

The Hugos were first awarded in 1953, the Nebulas in 1966, the World Fantasy Awards in 1975, and the Auroras (Canadian Speculative Fiction awards) in 1985. I’m working my way forward from the first Hugo and I’m currently in 1983 (which means I haven’t read the first Aurora yet).

After 29 Hugo winners (including a tie one year), my average rating there is 3.21 on the Goodreads scale (which I like, but maybe needs a separate post). Seventeen Nebula winners in, we’re at 3.26, a slightly better proposition. At eight WFA winners, it’s 1.75, with exactly one book getting more than a 2.

At the same time, when I started this quest, I elected to attempt the previous year’s winners in each (the 2015 winners in 2016 for example). Those results have been a bit mixed, too.

But I’ve also found six authors whose works I have not sufficiently explored, and I expect to find more. (Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elizabeth Lynn, Vonda McIntyre, and David Mitchell, in case you’re wondering.)

When I catch up in another 4 or 5 years, I’m considering branching out the quest to cover all of the major English-language awards globally, which would take me to the BSFA (British), Aurealis (Australian), Sir Julius Vogel (New Zealand), and perhaps the Locus Awards (although there’s a lot of crossover with the other NA majors there). The first two of those have books on the list that I’ve previously loved.

I’m also giving serious consideration to voting rights for the Hugos next year so that I get easy access to all of the nominees.

If you want to see what I’m reading right now, click on over to my Currently Reading shelf on Goodreads. It’s likely to be eclectic and have half a dozen books on it.

Happy reading, and be well, everyone.

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Book Review: The Shepherd’s Crown

Book Review: The Shepherd’s Crown

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The last Discworld novel and the first of the Tiffany Aching stories I truly loved. The previous ones were fun in their way, progressing from a decent read to true enjoyment, but none come anywhere near this tale. There may be emotional reasons for that other than just the story itself. Of course, I’ve always enjoyed the Nac Mac Feegle.

Right up to the end, Sir Terry continued his efforts to build inclusiveness into the societies of the Discworld, expanding the definition of the word “people”. He reminds us that both goblins (who have come a long way in recent books) and witches are people, too, along with everyone else we’ve already grown to love and accept, and shows us even faeries can learn and grow.

Perhaps there’s hope for humans.

This is a story of beginnings and middles and endings. It’s a story of living with change and understanding how deeply that’s embedded in the nature of the world. It’s a story of accepting beginnings and middles and endings.

There are plenty of moments of joy and happiness in this tale, but mostly it’s a more wistful sort of story, sad without wallowing in it.

Overall Rating: 5 stars. I’m stingy with 5-star ratings it seems, and I can’t honestly say at this moment if The Shepherd’s Crown truly deserves all five or if it’s my own sense of nostalgia. If Sir Terry had more time, would this have been better? Almost certainly. But he didn’t, and it wasn’t, and we have to take things as they are rather than as we want them to be.

I devoured this book when I wanted to savour it, but that’s okay. I can always go back, but it does sadden me that this is the last new Discworld book our world will ever see.

It saddens me even more to read the afterword, that Sir Terry continued trying to work out new ideas for Discworld tales that we’ll never see and that the series could have gone on quite a while yet. Perhaps there’s an alternate universe somewhere and alternate fans of alternate Sir Terry Pratchett will get to enjoy them. Those of us in this world will simply have to wonder at what might have been.

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Book Review: Homo Deus

Book Review: Homo Deus

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I read Mr. Harari’s previous book, Sapiens, a couple of years ago. In spite of the title similarity, this is not the same kind of book, except where it is.

The book looks at potential answers for two significant questions. What have been the major feats and accomplishments of our species in the past? What are the major tasks we are looking towards in the future?

In the early chapters, answering that first question, there’s a lot of similar material to Sapiens. It’s summarized and presented differently, but a lot of it is familiar ground if you’ve read that book, with perhaps a little more detail as we get close to the present, with the rise of technology and humanism

I’m going to skip over most of it and graze past the heart of things, where the title actually comes into play. Because this is a book about the future of the human species.

Well, possible future.

Futures.

Technology and humanism (and the author treats both almost as a religion and belief system, going so far as to say so for the latter) have done a lot for the human species so far, and will continue to, at least for a while. But the pace is always increasing and we’re not all that good at seeing the outcomes in advance.

Are we going to genetically engineer ourselves into a two-species, class-stratified society?

Are we going to algorithm ourselves into being cogs in a single, vast process?

Are we going to merge with machines?

Are we going to upgrade ourselves to become them?

There are a lot of possibilities that wind up with homo sapiens becoming obsolete or extinct at the hands of the successors we ourselves will engineer. And the paths the author shows us to get there, given what we know of human nature, are all too easy to see us walking down as a species. As it stands, we don’t give a lot of thought to futures and consequences at that level, but the choices we make as individuals and societies will lead us down some path and the author never comes right out and says so, but seems to gently prod me in the back of the mind that maybe we should plan at higher levels than we do.

Overall rating: 4 stars. The future is a vast, undiscovered country, and Mr. Harari’s writing shows several possible destinations in that country. If none of them are places we’d necessarily like to end up, then maybe we should take the book as a warning. At the very least, we should think about the path we might actually like to take.

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Book Review: Shadow of the Torturer

Book Review: Shadow of the Torturer

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I tried to read this book in 2014 and hated it. In fact, this was one of the first one-star reviews I ever gave, deciding that a DNF doesn’t rate more from me. Since that attempt was less than three years ago, I initially didn’t see the need to put myself through that again.

And then, in the course of my Hugo/Nebula/WFA novel winners quest, I found an audio version and thought maybe I could manage that while commuting. And I was right, but I still didn’t enjoy the book. There were several times I probably would have stopped or skipped ahead if I hadn’t been driving at the time.

Severian’s character is strange and not really workable for me. He’s actually presented very well while still serving with the Torturer’s Guild. His personality, while distinct from his friends and fellow students and journeymen, fits the mold for how he’s grown up in the guild.

But that personality shifts dramatically almost as soon as he walks out the front door, by turns allowing himself to be manipulated, by others a passive participant in life, and by still others he becomes an arrogant jerk. No, not everyone is consistent of character in the real world, either, but Severian seems to be very gumbified, molded by the author into a completely new character to fit whatever situation the author feels like putting him into. It gets both tiring and irritating.

To go along with the lack of a consistent character, we have a lack of consistent story once he’s away from the guild. Nothing really happens in the second half of the book. We careen from situation to situation, barely advancing the plot and not really advancing the characters of Severian and companions. After enough of these situations have gone by, the author apparently decides that’s enough for one book and the narrative just ends.

Not exactly a cliffhanger, though they are in the middle of something that hasn’t been explained at all, and with no real warning. The story just stops without telling us anything is coming. Severian is going through another door, and this seems like a good place to break things off, telling us we can read further in his memoirs if we choose.

And in the afterword, we find out it’s a tale of the future and the author is merely a translator? Olaf Stapledon pulled this in Last and First Men, and it didn’t really work for me then, and it doesn’t work for me now, especially on top of the book that I just read.

Overall rating: 2 stars. Again, I’m well aware that this book, and the series it starts, is well thought of by big parts of SF literary fandom. Yes, I’m equally well aware that Mr. Wolfe is considered a giant in the genre by some other really big names in the genre. Yes, it won two major awards.

But I have to ask again: so what? Just because a book is critically acclaimed or wins awards doesn’t mean any particular reader has to like it, and I didn’t. Your mileage may vary, but I won’t be reading the next book in the series even though it also won a major award (the Nebula this time). I’m actually a little sorry I spent the time to try this one again.

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Book Review: The Aleph and Other Stories

Book Review: The Aleph and Other Stories

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This is a strange collection of strange stories. Before now, I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Borges’ work, and I’m still not sure I am, especially since he appears to have been fairly prolific from what I’ve read about him since finishing this.

Not every story in this collection comes under the headings of science fiction or fantasy, at least not when I’m looking at them. But that’s okay. First, it’s good to step out of your comfort zones now and again. Second, to some degree, I enjoyed every story in the book, and that’s not something I can usually say. Third, the historical pieces here capture moments in time that I might not otherwise have considered.

If I had to think about themes running through the collection, I’m probably going to come up with three words: immortality, obsession, and time. Sometimes all three of these run together in a story and sometimes none of them are obvious but there are subtle tendrils here and there.

I’m not going to go through this story by story – plenty of other people have done that, and I’m not sure I have anything meaningful to add, although I suppose if this is the only review you read about this book (please don’t limit yourself here), maybe you’d appreciate at least a little something.

My favourites:

“The Aleph”, the titular story, is about an object that is, “one of the points in space that contains all points”. In fact, it contains every point in space from every angle in perfect clarity. Actually, the story is really about the effect on someone looking into the Aleph.

“The Dead Man” is, oddly to me, an historical piece about a man who believes he is seizing opportunities rather than writing his own epitaph.

“The Man on the Threshold” is also not a speculative fiction piece, but does contain a little bit of mind bleepery, subtle enough that it almost goes by at the time.

Overall rating: 4 stars, almost. I’ll leave it there, but at the same time mention that I wouldn’t want to be a woman in any of Borges’ stories. The writing is wonderful and the stories make you think, but collectively, this survey of Borges’ work is sexist as hell.

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Book Review: How Not To Be Wrong

Book Review: How Not To Be Wrong

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The cover blurb describes this as “the freakonomics of math”. No, not really. Freakonomics was the freakonomics of math. It just happened to be written by an economist. This book is really more about the author’s desire to answer the question “when am I ever going to use this?”

The short answer, never exactly stated outright, but talked around quite a bit, and in a longwinded way in the opening pages, is that if you’re talking about how to solve a quadratic equation or prove two triangles are the same triangle, you’re probably not going to. And that’s not the point, anyway. The point is to open up your brain to ways of thinking that will help you solve real world problems and question things when it’s important to question them.

There are definitely fun bits, demonstrations of how numbers can be manipulated (and actually, he comes back to this point with a lot of different examples, some esoteric, and some very entertaining), how a first past the post voting system doesn’t work with more than two candidates (surprise!), and how people in the relatively recent past have taken advantage of poorly designed lotteries.

But in amongst the fun bits, I’m confused about how and why god keeps coming into things. He doesn’t appear to be taking sides on a mathematical proof for or against god, but the author keeps bringing it up. And suddenly, somewhere past the half way mark, he brings up original sin. Original sin? Seriously? He compares just generally being wrong to the concept of original sin as if it’s a real, concrete thing. At this point, I actually came very close to putting the book down as I’m really not interested in someone mixing religion in with the science I thought I was reading.

The writing itself is a bit variable, sometimes very engaging and readable and sometimes very dry and long-winded with examples that stretch out a little too far.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I come down on the side of liking this book, though I don’t know if the subtitle, “The Power of Mathematical Thinking” is ever realized in the book outside of demonstrated moments when people have taken advantage of that power.

Be well, everyone.

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