Monthly roundup – June and July 2015

So, my website has been neglected for the last couple of months – work has been a bit crazy and I’m running very behind on a whole lot of extra-curricular stuff.

So, let me catch you up gentle reader.

I’ve read a few books over the last couple of months, all of which I enjoyed. I finally read Dodger by Terry Pratchett. Set in the England of the industrial revolution, it follows the exploits of Dodger, a young man who scours the sewers of London for treasure that others have flushed away. I’ve been putting off reading this book, knowing that it was the last new pure Pratchett I’m every going to read. It was good, amusing all the way through and with the great turn of phrase I expect from a Pratchett novel. It was strange reading something that wasn’t set in Discworld, but it was a refreshing change (as much as I love Discworld novels!). Recommended if you’re a Pratchett fan.

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of The Big Smoke by Jason Nahrung. Nahrung is one of my favourite authors, and The Big Smoke didn’t disappoint. I’ll be writing a full review soon, but in the meantime if Aussie vampires in Brisvegas sounds intriguing, get out and buy the book (and Blood and Dust, the first book in the duology, which I reviewed here).

Moving more internationally, I inhaled The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, which has featured on many of the speculative fiction award lists this year. An excellent novel, it follows a half-elf-half-orc who unexpectedly inherits the throne when his father and older half-brothers unexpectedly die in an accident. The main character is very sympathetic, and the writing very clean. A real page turner, I read the book in a couple of sittings. I can see why it has received so many accolades. One of the best fantasies of the year.

Peripheral by William Gibson was also very enjoyable, if not the same kind of page turner. Based on the premise that people in the future find a way to communicate with the past through a computer system, it is part science fiction, part murder mystery and part thriller. It took a little bit of effort to get into the book, but once there I really enjoyed it. Well written and the trademark Gibson  extrapolation of current technology gives much food for thought.

I decided to read the winners of each novel category of the 2015 Aurealis Awards to keep my eye on the Australian scene. I started with Peacemaker  by Marianne de Pierres, winner of the Best Science Fiction category. I’ll be doing a full review for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, but in short it was a good novel solidly executed, but I don’t know that I’ll be rushing back for the second book in the series.

Next off the mark was The Dreaming Pool by Juliet Marillier. I really enjoyed this book. There was an element of “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, because I had completely the wrong idea about the book from the title and the cover. Once again, I’ll be writing a full review for the AWWC but well worth reading.

I’m taking a short break from my Aurealis reading to look at The Long Utopia by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett (more Stephen Baxter than Terry Pratchett, mores the pity – nothing against Stephen Baxter, but I do miss Pratchett’s writing). About as expected so far.

TV wise, like everyone I watching through to the end of Game of Thrones season 5, and have spent the requisite amount of time worrying about Jon Snow’s fate. That’s probably enough – there have been a lot more written about GoT everyone else on the internet, and I find myself without anything interesting to say.

I started watching Dark Matter, which has the distinction of being a science fiction show actually set on a spaceship. I hadn’t realised I’d been missing that until I got about half way through the first episode and thought “<insert deity of choice>, I love spaceships”. A good premise (everyone waking up with amnesia) and very competently executed so far. I’m hooked.

I also started watching Defiance season 3. For a show that was released primarily to sell a computer game, I’ve found Defiance quite compelling. There has been a bit of a clear out of old characters, but I’m still liking the show. If you haven’t watched the first two seasons, I probably wouldn’t advise starting at season 3.

I started watching The Messengers but abandoned it after 1.5 episodes. I’m not a religious man, but I can be convinced to watch angel/demon shows (for instance Supernatural), but I’ve decided I only like them when the angels are almost as bad as the demons.

On the superhero side of things, Gotham has been getting better and better. It is dark – very gritty with characters having to make some nasty choices (one of them, for instance, had to scoop her own eyeball out. It made sense at the time). I’ve always liked the Batman tale, and this exploration of the pre-origin story has grabbed me more than I thought it would. Worth persevering with if you like Batman but didn’t like the first half of the season.

I also just finished Arrow season 3, which was about as I expected. I’ve heard a lot of commentary panning the flashback format of the show, but I really like it. I’m enjoying having Oliver Queen’s backstory filled in, and having the flashbacks track exactly 5 years behind the main action works for me.

Agents of SHIELD was competently executed, and lets face it, I’m just a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I enjoyed watching it, I’m struggling to find anything interesting to say about it. So, lets just stick with “if you like the MCU, you’re probably watching AoS already” and leave it at that.

12 Monkeys was an interesting time hopping adventure. Based loosely around the Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt movie of the same name, it included an interesting take on time travel that remained mostly coherent. I remained interested enough to see it through to the end, just to see how everything played out. I liked the end, pointing everything at “you can’t escape destiny”, then pulling a fast one in the last scene. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the second season.

Wayward Pines started off in an intriguing way. A ten episode season, I was surprised when they revealed the mystery at the heart of the story about half way through. It changed the nature of the narrative quite dramatically. I didn’t mind not having Lost levels of irritating and contrived mystery, but it has made me wonder where the show could possibly go from here. I may start the next season, but I make no guarantees about finishing it.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve started in on the new seasons of Teen Wolf and Falling Skies. More on them next month.

I even got out to see a couple of movies. Imagine what you think the Entourage movie will be like. Picture it in your mind. You’ll be pleased to know that it is exactly what is hovering in your pre-frontal cortex. If you liked the series, then it is a bit of nostalgia. If not, don’t bother.

I really enjoyed Ant Man. It was significantly funnier that I was expecting, and after the ever escalating plots of the last few MCU movies, it was nice to have something with a manageable scale. A good stand alone movie as well if you haven’t kept up with the franchise.

And finally I popped out to see Mission Impossible this weekend. Pretty good non-stop explosions and Tom Cruise may be a fruit loop, but he is an incredibly fit fruit loop. Either special effects are getting really good, or Mr Cruise does a LOT of his own stunts. Lets face it, we all know that we’re going to wake up one day to the headline “Tom Cruise Dies Performing Bloody Stupid Stunt”. Still, in the meantime it makes for some spectacular, if mindless, entertainment.


Zero History by William Gibson – review

As mentioned in my review of Spook Country, I recently decided to catch up on William Gibson’s more recent work.

Spook Country and Zero History form a loose trilogy with one of Mr Gibson’s earlier works Pattern Recognition, which I read long enough ago to have completely forgotten the plot to. Fortunately each book seems to stand fairly independently.

Zero History is told from the perspective of two main characters, both of whom featured in Spook Country:

  • Hollis Henry, a former rock star and writer, still somewhat down on her luck and again running short of money (mostly it seems because of her decision to live in a ludicrously expensive hotel).
  • Milgrim, an expensively detoxed drug addict trying to pull the threads of his life together.

The plot involves both characters finding themselves in the employment of the somewhat enigmatic Bigend, this time searching for a elusive secret brand of clothing. By the end of the book, you are a long way from where you started but the quality of writing kept me in the willing suspense of disbelief zone.

Each short chapter alternates between Hollis and Milgrim’s point of view. This time I took my own advice and read the book in longer bursts, which did make the story flow a lot better.

Like Spook Country, there is not a lot of science fiction in Zero History. There were no real fantastical elements at all in the story (unlike the description of systema in Spook Country). Current technology is pushed to plausible but extreme limits. Again, the story in very explicitly of its time – the difference from Spook Country is that my reading happened while the technology is still fresh. I still have the same concerns about longevity, but I found myself not being distracted as much by dated references to products and brands.

The plot was much more compelling – it seemed to build much more satisfyingly to a conclusion. The last 20% or so of the book kept me hooked in and I read it in one session.

Overall I had a very pleasurable reading experience on this one, and would recommend it. If you’ve read Pattern Recognition and/or Spook Country you’ll know if you’ll enjoy this book though – it has a very similar style to it.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

Spook Country by William Gibson – review

Spook Country by William Gibson has been on my to read list for quite a while, but it kept getting pipped at the post by other books. I recently decided that enough was enough and that I needed to get it and Mr Gibson’s latest (Zero History) read.

Spook Country and Zero History form a loose trilogy with one of Mr Gibson’s earlier works Pattern Recognition, which I read long enough ago to have completely forgotten the plot to. Fortunately each book seems to stand fairly independently.

Spook Country is told from the perspective of three main characters:

  • Hollis Henry, a former rock star down on her luck after a series of poor investments and giving investigative journalism for a somewhat nebulous new magazine a go.
  • Tito, a young member of a Cuban-American crime family (literally a family)
  • Milgrim, a Russian speaking and somewhat mellow drug addict being held by an agent of an unspecified government or quasi-government agency so he can provide translation services.

Each of the quite short chapters is told from a different main character’s point of view, and the three character’s stories slowly come together over the course of the book. I liked the short chapters in concept, but I did find in practice my reading of the novel was a little choppy. I was reading a few chapters each evening before going to sleep, and sometimes it would take me a little while to get back into the rhythm of the book. I would probably recommend trying to read the book in a fewer number of longer reading sessions – the few times when I got a longer read going I enjoyed the experience a lot more.

There is not a lot of science fiction in Spook Country. The book was first published in 2007 and the setting and technology reflect that era. The only thing even slightly fantastical is one of the characters, Tito, and his use of “systema” (a sort of Russian martial arts) in combination with the Santeria religion (I only worked out that these were separate things when I was looking up systema on Wikipedia afterwards). Tito lets the (real or imagined) spirits of his religion inhabit him, allowing him to perform different tasks more instinctively e.g. a form of free running, fighting etc. Given the tone of the rest of the book, I suspect the religion provides a means for the character to enter an advantageous mental state rather than Mr Gibson meaning us to take it literally as a form of magic, but it does provide a fantastical feel to parts of the book.

The story comes together nicely and I enjoyed the main characters, each of which was written very differently. It is interesting reading a book that is so explicitly of its time – the blatant use of 2007 technology (including naming specific brands) means the book is somewhat dated even only four years later, but I found what is done with the technology so interesting that I tended to forget about the time lag (e.g. locative art, using wireless devices and headsets to see digital art tied to a particular physical location). However, at the end I did wonder whether I would feel the same way reading the book in say 10 years time. Still, it certainly does capture a slice in time and may remain interesting for that reason.

While I found the writing excellent, the plot wasn’t particularly compelling – I certainly wasn’t staying up until three o’clock in the morning because I absolutely had to know what happened next. Still, it did evoke a beautifully realised world populated with characters that all felt vaguely cooler than I’ll ever be, and I enjoyed reading the book from that perspective if nothing else.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.