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).

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

A novel of our near future, from one of the most popular authors in modern SF.

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

One per cent doesn't seem like a lot. But in the United States, that's 1.7 million people “locked in”...including the President's wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse....
Star rating: 4.5 stars

This is the first book by John Scalzi that I have read. Straight after I finished this book, I went and bought two more. I really liked the writing style.

This book combines three things I really like in fiction - viruses, cybernetics and neuroscience. Yes I'm weird. This book is set in the future, 20 years after a virus breaks out worldwide causing those infected to either die or develop Haden's Syndrome. While Haden's Syndrome is not a real condition in our world, it was based on the very real condition known as locked-in syndrome in which the sufferer remains consciously aware but the rest of them is paralysed, unresponsive and unable to communicate. It is very rare and very scary. But in this book, it's far from rare with millions of people suffering from Haden's in the US alone. This is the future, so companies funded by the Government have designed threeps, which are Personal Transport devices which I kind of imagined a little like cyborgs that could walk around. This threeps are connected wirelessly to the brains of the Haden's sufferers who are able to remotely control it by thinking so that they can continue to interact with the world and lead a more normal life.

We follow Agent Shane, who works for the Police Department's Haden's division (as he himself has Haden's). I have no idea whether this is a guy or a girl as it is not mentioned at all throughout the story. I had guy in my head but it's difficult to tell. This takes skill to pull this off as a writer.

I thought there was something missing from the ending. I liked the ending and things were wrapped up nicely but I wasn't completely satisfied. Perhaps it's because it is a stand alone book, maybe I'm getting used to endings which are slightly open ended because they are part of a series. Who knows?! I can't explain it. And because of this, I have given it 4.5 stars instead of 5 stars.

Review: Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi's debut collection demonstrates the power and reach of the science fiction short story. Social criticism, political parable, and environmental advocacy lie at the center of Paolo's work. Each of the stories herein is at once a warning, and a celebration of the tragic comedy of the human experience.

The eleven stories in Pump Six represent the best Paolo's work, including the Hugo nominee "Yellow Card Man," the nebula and Hugo nominated story "The People of Sand and Slag," and the Sturgeon Award-winning story "The Calorie Man."
Star rating: 4 stars

This is the first book of short stories that I have ever finished. Thank you Paolo Bacigalupi for showing me that short stories can be great and that I can enjoy them as much as other people seem to.

The stories in this book were fantastic; I liked all of them although there were some that were just ok while others were firm favourites. I really do like this author's writing style, the bleak worlds he creates, the messed up characters and the interesting technologies. I would love to see more of all of these that were featured in this book.

Three of the stories are set in the worlds of his main novels; "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man" are set in the world of The Windup Girl and "Tamarisk Hunter" is set in the world of The Water Knife. While I enjoyed being reacquainted with the Windup world again, I think I enjoyed the others stories more.

I liked the body modifications in "Fluted Twins"; the organic city in "Pocketful of Dharma"; the ability to loose and then instantly grow back limbs (plus the poor dog) in "People of the Sand and Slag"; the conflicting customs in "The Pasho"; the rejoo in "Pop Squad"; and the loss of intelligence in "Pump Six".

My favourites were "Pop Squad" and "Pump Six". Oh and I love the front cover of this book.