Friday, 4 August 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new universe by the Hugo Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Redshirts and Old Man's War.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

Star Rating: 5 stars

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

John Scalzi is one of my favourite authors. I have read a number of his books now and they have never failed to entertain me. I was excited to learn of a new series and this is a great start to the Collapsing Empire series.

Scalzi created some very interesting characters with depth to them and made me like/dislike them and feel invested in what happened to them. I am very much looking forward to finding out how they develop in the series. What I liked most, being female myself, was that many of the main characters are female and they are strong females, in positions of power. It makes a nice change.

Whilst there was some action and suspense throughout the story, it wasn't really explosive or have me on the edge of my seat. But I figure that's because of the world building, setting up the characters and the scene ready for the rest of the series. The world building was fantastic. I loved the idea of the Flow and how spaceships moved around space between planets.

I eagerly await the next installment.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: Machine Learning: New and Collected Stories by Hugh Howey

A new collection of stories, including some that have never before been seen, from the New York Times best-selling author of the Silo trilogy.

Hugh Howey is known for crafting riveting and immersive page-turners of boundless imagination, spawning millions of fans worldwide, first with his best-selling novel Wool, and then with other enthralling works such as Sand and Beacon 23. Now comes Machine Learning, an impressive collection of Howey’s science fiction and fantasy short fiction, including three stories set in the world of Wool, two never-before-published tales written exclusively for this volume, and fifteen additional stories collected here for the first time. These stories explore everything from artificial intelligence to parallel universes to video games, and each story is accompanied by an author’s note exploring the background and genesis of each story. Howey’s incisive mind makes Machine Learning: New and Collected Stories a compulsively readable and thought-provoking selection of short works—from a modern master at the top of his game.

Star Rating: 4.5 stars

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I have thoroughly enjoyed a number of Hugh Howey's novels, in particular the Silo series so I was really pleased to see that this collection of short stories revisited the world and the characters of that series. The three Silo stories - In the Air, In the Mountain, and In the Woods all seem to continue on from each other almost forming their own novella in and of themselves. It was good to see some familiar characters as well as some new ones (unless they weren't new and I've just forgotten about them which is possible as it's been a while since I finished the Silo series). These three stories are for those who have already read the Silo series as they contain spoilers.

This collection of stories was broken down in to sections. In addition to the Silo Stories section, we had sections (and stories) on Aliens and Alien Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, Fantasy, Algorithms of Love and Hate, Virtual Worlds and Lost and Found.

I do not generally have a good track record when it comes to short stories. Usually I approach them by reading a story here and there whilst also reading another book but on this occasion I actually read this book cover to cover. More often than not, I tend to only enjoy a few stories in collections and a lot of the time find myself left wanting when a story ends. However with this collection, I enjoyed every one of the stories. Bar one. One of the fantasy stories (Hell from the East) I actually skipped. But that's pretty good going I would say. I found myself engrossed in all the other stories and enjoyed the characters and the worlds. My favourites were Second Suicide, Glitch, The Plagiarist, Peace in Amber as well as all of the Silo stories.

Peace in Amber is set in the same world as Kurt Vonnegurt's Slaughterhouse Five. Now I'm not a fan of that book so I was a little apprehensive about the short story. I thought I'd end up skipping it. But I really liked it. It was well written. I could see similarities and the nods to the book but Howey's writing style and his ability to create worlds and interesting characters came through giving me a better experience of that world.

My favourite thing about this whole book is that Howey adds commentary on each of the stories at the end of each one. Not only does it provide some insight in to Howey's writing process, his inspirations for stories and why he writes about the subjects he does but also it gives us some idea of who is as a person and what makes him tick. As a fellow boat dweller, I love the fact he lives on a boat and is sailing around the world (at least he was when this book was being written). I found his commentary helped me understand the story better, something that on occasions I struggle with with shorter fiction. I actually enjoyed the commentary as much as the stories. I feel that more authors should commentate their short stories in this way.

I will definitely read more of his short fiction and novels in the future.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

A thoughtful, poignant novel that explores the creation of Artificial Intelligence — illuminating the very human need for communication, connection, and understanding.

In a narrative that spans geography and time, from the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century, to a correctional institute in Texas in the near future, and told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive.

A young Puritan woman travels to the New World with her unwanted new husband. Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician and code breaker, writes letters to his best friend's mother. A Jewish refugee and professor of computer science struggles to reconnect with his increasingly detached wife. An isolated and traumatized young girl exchanges messages with an intelligent software program. A former Silicon Valley Wunderkind is imprisoned for creating illegal lifelike dolls.

Each of these characters is attempting to communicate across gaps — to estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or a computer program that may or may not understand them. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louisa Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human — shrinking rapidly with today's technological advances — echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people. Though each speaks from a distinct place and moment in time, all five characters share the need to express themselves while simultaneously wondering if they will ever be heard, or understood.
Star Rating: 5 stars

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

First off, I really liked the front cover of this book. Simple but elegant. I guess it's what drew me to the book as I hadn't heard of it nor the author prior to that.

If I had to compare this book to other stories, I'd have to say it's I, Robot meets Artificial Intelligence (A.I), meets Transcendence. Others have compared it to Cloud Atlas in format. I cannot comment on that unfortunately as I had to abandon Cloud Atlas pretty early on. It is a story of love, loss, the importance of relationships and communication, and what it means to be human.

This book is told through five different voices which span centuries and continents. These five voices however are told through one person, Eva, a robot who is being taken on mass with others like her for destruction. This is how the books starts off. We're plunged in to a world where we know robots are being persecuted but we're not sure why. The story unfolds as each of Eva's voices shares their story. The five voices are all very different people yet they are all interconnected in some way and they tell their tale in a variety of formats – memoirs, letters, and online chat dialogues.

I was going to list the voices in the order in which they appear (and which they are numbered in the book) but instead I'm going to to start with the one furthest back in time where it all starts off.

Mary Bradford, is a young Puritan woman who leaves for the New World with her parents, new husband and her dog in 1663. They most likely were among the first of the colonists. Mary's diary I found difficult to read. She has written it in the style of an early adventurist (she does mention his name but I can't recall it). I've not read any of his work (if he's in fact real) so I cannot comment on the likeness of it but I found it very stilted. I also thought that the language perhaps wasn't very 15th century. It felt quite modern but that may be because Mary's journal that we are presented with as readers has been edited by Ruth Dettman. We'll come to the Dettmans later.

Next we have Alan Turing who is corresponding with the parents of his best friend Chris. He tells of their work in the field of computing and how the mind works and of his time at Bletchley. It was his aim to put the mind of his deceased friend in to that of a computer.

Then we have the Dettmans. Ruth and her husband Karl, individually fled Nazi Germany during the Second World War and went to the US where they met and got married. Now in the midst of the Vietnam War, their marriage is on the rocks because Ruth spends all her time talking to the speaking computer, named MARY, that Karl designed.

We then have Stephen R Chinn, in 2040, who is writing from inside the Texas State Correctional Institution. We know he's been detained because he created the robots which are being herded up for destruction. He talks of his past and how his ideas developed. At first I found a real affinity with the character but that changed as the story progressed.

And lastly we have Gaby White who converses with MARY3, the third generation of the original MARY which Karl Dettman created. MARY3 is a lot more sophisticated and has a personality. We find out about the ordeals which Gaby and her young friends have gone through as their babybots have been snatched away from them leaving them bereft and inconsolable.

Then full circle, we have Eva, who is one of the babybots who was taken away from their owner.

This book is well written and I enjoyed each of the different voices and the part they played in telling the story. The author has created some well thought out characters and employed some interesting plot devices.

I have a background in computer science and cybernetics in addition to psychology so this book really appealed to me and I found it very interesting. I think anyone who uses computers and are interested in how technology develops would enjoy this book. This book is science fiction but done in a literary way. I guess I would compare it to the likes of Station Eleven which centres on the characters and their interactions with each other more than the external events. I enjoyed the character focus immensely but I was left with many questions about the world generally and what happened for robots to go from being loved and wanted by all to being removed from their owners and destroyed.

Would I read more from this author? Possibly. I guess I enjoyed the combination of her writing style and the subject of the story.

The book is a quick read and I enjoyed it very much.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin

Taking place nearly a century before the events of A Game of Thrones, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms compiles the first three official prequel novellas to George R. R. Martin’s ongoing masterwork, A Song of Ice and Fire. These never-before-collected adventures recount an age when the Targaryen line still holds the Iron Throne, and the memory of the last dragon has not yet passed from living consciousness.

Illustrated by the amazing Gary Gianni who is known for his work on PRINCE VALIANT, the Wandering Star limited editions of SOLOMON KANE and BRAN MAK MORN, and of course for his stunning 2014 ICE & FIRE calendar.
Star Rating: 5 stars

I had to read this book. I've read all the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series and I am impatiently waiting for the next installment. I thought this book would tide me over but I read it way too quickly (because it's really good) and now I'm back to square one desperately wanting to read more about Westeros. So more waiting commences. It's a bit of a tease this book ;-)

This book combines three short stories about the Hedge Knight Dunk and his Squire, Egg. The events of their lives take place a century before that of the characters I know and love from the main series books. Same world, different characters. But the world is as vibrant and familiar as I remember it to be. The family houses and the infighting between those families is still there. I guess it will always be there while money and the Iron Throne are about. Each story is separate and tells the tale of Dunk and Egg's adventures around Westeros. Even with just three short stories, you see the characters grow and their relationship blossom. At the end of the book, George R R Martin hints that there will be more tales of Dunk and Egg in the future which I'm pleased about as they are fantastic characters. I borrowed the ebook from the library and it was an illustrated version. I thought the illustrations were fantastic and really added to the story. A must read for any Game of Thrones fans!

Review: Burning Chrome by William Gibson

Best-known for his seminal sf novel Neuromancer, William Gibson is actually best when writing short fiction. Tautly-written and suspenseful, Burning Chrome collects 10 of his best short stories with a preface from Bruce Sterling, now available for the first time in trade paperback. These brilliant, high-resolution stories show Gibson's characters and intensely-realized worlds at his absolute best, from the chip-enhanced couriers of "Johnny Mnemonic" to the street-tech melancholy of "Burning Chrome."
Star Rating: 3.5 stars

The introduction at the beginning of this collection of short stories talks about Gibson's desire for stories that are told from the bottom up. Stories which are about people in the streets and alleys of the cities as opposed to being told from the people at the top, speculating on how everyday people are experiencing life. I have to agree with Gibson. These kind of stories make much more interesting reading. I guess that's why he writes stories like that too. Many of the shorts in this book are about just ordinary people (if you can just have ordinary people in Gibson's worlds). They are set in near time futures, often dystopic. Low life, high tech!

The book kicks off with the story Johnny Pneumonic. I remember seeing the film with Keanu Reeves years ago but I had no idea that it was actually a short story, let alone that it had been written by Gibson. I loved this story. It is set in the Sprawl world and Molly Millions (from Neuromancer) makes an appearance.

I liked The Gernsback Continuum as it was different to Gibson's other stories. This story showed how he can write in different genres. It made more sense, less jargon and is the first non-tech story I've read of his.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose had some interesting concepts but I didn't exactly understand what happened at the end. It was however very poetic and beautiful and I think it warrants a second reading.

There were a couple collaborations in the book - The Belonging Kind was by John Shurley and William Gibson and Dogfight was by Michael Swanwich and William Gibson.

Another Sprawl based story was Hinterlands which I loved. Quite possibly one of my favourites.

Other stories included The Winter Market and Burning Chrome.

Red Star, Winter Orbit and New Rose Hotel were probably my least favourites.

I have given this book 3.5 stars. Mainly because there were a couple stories I didn't enjoy so much or understand what was happening (which is often the case with me and short stories).

I do like Gibson's writing style so I am looking forward to reading more of his work as this book and Neuromancer are the only ones I've got to so far.

Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.
Star Rating: 4 stars

This book is well written and a quick read despite its length. It is very descriptive. Most books, I get a good visual idea of the characters and the setting but many authors miss out the other senses, or they are just not as prominent as the visuals. We all experience things differently depending on whether we are a visual, kinesthetic or audio type of person. I know I'm a very visual person but smells also play a big part in how I remember things (perhaps that's all the years of being an aromatherapist). Anyway, this book details smells and tastes quite heavily and I thought it really added to the whole experience. At the beginning, it was mainly in relation to wine tasting but then it was in relations to places and people.

I did enjoy the book and gave it 4 stars but I think I've got to the stage now where I've read too many "good vampire" books. They are all a bit too samey for my liking. Male vampire and female of another supernatural race (witch in this case) fall in love. It's a forbidden love. There are secrets and organisations to satisfy/avoid. The vampire is always scared they are going to hurt the woman because he's so powerful. They can't have children. blah blah blah blah... They are all the same. I think I need to go back to reading some scary vampire books as they might appeal to me more.

I thought the book was a little slow in places, especially in the middle when Diana is in France - it felt like it ebbed and flowed a lot with it's pace. I liked the first part of the book the most as it was more mystery but then it became more about the romance which became a little frustrating for me. I will continue the series as I think the next book will be interesting because of its setting (plus I own the rest of the books in the series).

I did like all the witch stuff though and I guess that was supposed to be the main focus.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Review: Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China MiƩville

London awakes one morning to find itself besieged by a sky full of floating icebergs. Destroyed oil rigs, mysteriously reborn, clamber from the sea and onto the land, driven by an obscure but violent purpose. An anatomy student cuts open a cadaver to discover impossibly intricate designs carved into a corpse's bones—designs clearly present from birth, bearing mute testimony to . . . what?

Of such concepts and unforgettable images are made the twenty-eight stories in this collection—many published here for the first time. By turns speculative, satirical, and heart-wrenching, fresh in form and language, and featuring a cast of damaged yet hopeful seekers who come face-to-face with the deep weirdness of the world—and at times the deeper weirdness of themselves—Three Moments of an Explosion is a fitting showcase for one of our most original voices.
Star rating: 4 stars

I received Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I was so excited to receive this book as China Mieville is one of my favourite authors.

That said, I am not a big fan of short stories. Just a couple months ago I finished reading my first book of short stories. Normally I start, then give up. I am pleased to say that I read every story in this book. There are well over 20 stories, some are very short while others are much longer. I have to say that I got on better with the longer ones.

As with all short story collections I've attempted to read, this one has a number of stories where you are left at the end wondering what that was all about and wondering if you missed something. I had this feeling on quite a few occasions. Despite this confusion, I was also often left with a feeling of enjoyment.

One of my GR friends who loves short stories said to me that she views a short story as a photograph, that it is just a snippet of a time, a person, a place or a situation and you can't see outside the frame of the photograph. But you don't have to in order to appreciate the photograph. I really liked this analogy and I have since been keeping it in mind while I read short stories and it helps me tremendously. (Thanks Camilla!)

Some of my favourites in this collection were Polynia in which Icebergs appeared in the skies of London; The Dowager of Bees in which special cards would appear mysteriously during games of Poker with very interesting consequences; In the Slopes was set at an Archeological dig site where some strange findings are discovered; The Crawl, a Zombie movie trailer which I would definitely go to see if it were ever actually made in to a movie; Watching God, a post apocalyptic island set story where ships sit off the coast just watching; The Buzzards Egg about a guy that I really felt for who had to look after a captured God; Dreaded Outcome about a therapist who will go to the extreme to ensure her patients get well; and After the Festival which was very grim and disturbing that it game me goosebumps and made me shiver upon recounting the story to my partner.

There was quite a mix of stories, all a little strange as one would expect with Mieville. He created some awesome worlds which I would love to spend more time in. I was left with lots of questions (which is not uncommon for me at the end of a short story) but I feel ok with that.

I will definitely be reading his older short story collection Looking for Jake and Other Stories (as well as future novels).