Tag Archives: Reading

Books I’ve read this month Aug/Sept 17

Summer in BC is great for reading, especially those lazy days when you can’t go outside because of all the smoke from the rest of the country being on fire.

In the car I’ve been listening to John Scalzi’s “Agent to the Stars” . It’s light and fun, but has a good message tucked away inside. Like several of Scalzi’s audio books, it’s narrated by Wil Wheaton, and I think this is a good thing. The story is about a movie agent who is contacted by aliens. They’re the traditional green blobs who are worried that their appearance might prejudice the Earth against them, so they want an agent to work on their image problem.

Since it’s a fun book, I listened to it way too fast, and now I’m neck-deep in “Lords and Ladies” by Terry Pratchett. It’s the third in the “Witches” series from the Discworld, but it pulls in some familiar faces from Ankh Morpork in the shape of Archchancellor Ridcully, Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian and the Bursar. If you haven’t read the Witches series, start with “Wyrd Sisters”, and don’t forget to tell your friends about them.

Outside of the audio world, actual physical books have been read too. I started with “The Magpie Murders“, even though it was written by Anthony Horowitz. I have an unreasonable dislike for him, thanks to a radio interview I heard a long time ago. Maybe he’s changed since then, maybe not, but this book is very good. For one thing, it’s a book about a book, and you get to read the book that the book is about, which is great. Maybe I should explain.

The story is told by a literary agent or editor (I forget which). She’s taken delivery of the latest – and last – in a series about a Poirot-style detective, and she’s planning to read the whole thing through. but the last chapter is missing. While she hunts for the missing chapter, she discovers the author is dead – probably suicide, but maybe not. And there are disturbing parallels between his life and the fictional village he wrote of in his series. To find out the truth, she has to solve the murder in the book and in real life.

I’m glad I read this book – now, if I ever meet Mr Horowitz in person, I’ll have something nice to say to him.

Having enjoyed one mystery, I went straight on to another. This one was “The Zig Zag Girl” by Elly Griffiths. It’s based on the real-world idea of magicians being used in the Second World War to confuse the enemy using stage magic principles. Now, years after the war, it looks like someone is targeting the “Magic Men” and killing them off. Since one of them is a policeman, it’s his job to find the others and try and solve the murders before he falls victim too. This is the first of a series, and I’ll be tracking the others down soon.

My final offering for this month is a non-fiction piece. “Blood, Sweat and Pixels” is a recounting of the effort it takes to get video games from conception to completion. I like games, though I don’t get to play them frequently enough to recognise more than two or three of the ones mentioned in this book (and I’ve not actually played ANY of them) and worst of all, the book ends with the sad story of the now-legendary “1313”, the Star Wars game that never was. When you read the stories, you wonder why anyone even tries to make video games, let alone how they reach the markets. You also, if you’re me, wonder if there’s ever going to be a playable release of 1313.

Image result for 1313 screengrabs

 

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The books of July 2015

We took some friends to see Second Beach, still hot at sunset....

We took some friends to see Second Beach, still hot at sunset….

It’s been dangerously hot in BC during June and July, unusually so. There’ve been wildfires across the province, some accidental, some not. School let out, and visitors came, so we’ve had lazy days in the sun, crazy days being tourists in our own town, and the whole spectrum in between.

There haven’t been many days lazing in a hammock reading books, but there are three I’ve read in July that stand out.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Growing up in the UK, I never watched Saturday Night Live, but it’s hard to escape the many SNL alumni who populate the film and television shows we all watch. Tina Fey has been a voice on animated movies, characters on film and television, and a name that appears again and again on the internet, especially when there are comedy awards happening.

The cover of “Bossypants” is quite distinctive, and I’ve seen it on the shelf in the library often enough to be curious about it. Like many autobiographies of the rich and famous, it’s not actually a blow-by-blow account of their lives in chronological order, but a series of anecdotes. Not everything in the book is something you want to know about, but it’s presented well, and I like her sense of humour. What does come across clearly is the staggering prejudice she’s had to overcome – in the comedy improve troupes, in the comedy clubs, in television and in movies. People have told her that “audiences aren’t interested in a sketch with just two women” and other unbelievable things . All of these nuggets of wisdom clearly based on no experience whatsoever, since Tina Fey and Amy Poehler took the internet by storm with the two-woman sketch of Sarah Palin being interviewed by Katie Couric. Tina Fey is not “funny for a woman”, she’s funny. In fact, she’s hilarious. Her sections on parenting were so true they made me laugh even while remembering the agony of parenting small children.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

This book has been out for a while, but I’ve been resisting reading it. Now that I took the plunge, I can’t remember for the life of me why I was so reluctant. I’ve read all of Neil Gaiman’s books, and a stack of his Sandman comics (though not all) and they always have the same effect: I wish I wrote with a special fountain pen, so I could screw the cap firmly on and put it away for ever. Then I would lie down with a bag on my head, secure in the knowledge that nothing I ever wrote could be half as good as Neil Gaiman’s simplest short stories.

Like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman is living proof that short stories can be amazingly powerful, that they have just as much ability to ensnare the mind as full-length novels. Reading a collection like this is like having a dozen novels at your disposal, with the added advantage that this collection includes a story about Shadow Moon, so you’ve got another sequel to the astonishing “American Gods” (another sequel because there’s another Shadow short story elsewhere, and Mr Gaiman says there’ll be at least one more in the future.)

It would be sad to think that there’s no future for short stories. Amazon made provision for authors to write short stories with their “Kindle Singles” program, and of course, there’s nothing to stop us Indie authors writing and publishing any number of collections of short fiction. What seems to have gone forever is the ready market for short fiction – the magazines that used to accept short stories and give some respectability to new authors. I hope the sales of collections like this and others helps dispel the myth that short fiction isn’t popular.

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by S.A.Hunt

I often stumble across great books thank to my friends on Google Plus, and this one was no exception. Having heard a great deal about it from other friends, I finally made the acquaintance of the author himself and downloaded the book. As a bonus, the edition I bought is books one and two, saving a wait when I got to the end of book one. Anyone who has read the Gunslinger books by Stephen King will feel a thrill of familiarity, but truth be told the only thing the two tales have in common is that the lawkeepers of the alternate worlds are gunslingers. In the land of Roland of Gilead, the world has moved on and things are collapsing. In the world that Ross stumbles into, civilisation is alive and well, with a gunslinger on the throne. Comparisons become useless at this point. The story is epic in scale, but well told and original. I will be picking up book three soon.

Due to technical difficulties (my own, not his) I haven’t been able to read my ARC of “Spirit Hackers” by Aaron Crocco, but since I’m a big fan of his “Chrono Virus”, I’m happy to recommend it. “Spirit Hackers” should be released soon, so check aaroncrocco.com for the latest news

As frequently happens, I’ve read a bad book this month too. I’m not going to name names, because reviews are subjective things. Suffice to say, this was a book that had fulsome praise on the back for its ingenuity and unique voice, etc etc. That’s all well and good, but I believe stories should have a beginning, a middle and and end. You don’t need to put them in that order, but as a writer you have a contract with the reader. “Here’s a world,” you say “and here’s the people in that world. Here’s something happening, something worth your attention.” If you do it right, you’ll grab my attention early on, you’ll make me care what happens to those people – whether I want to see them succeed, or want to see them defeated by their enemies, well, that depends on the situation you’re writing about, doesn’t it? But what I really, really don’t want is the story I got from this book: “Here’s an insignificant man. He doesn’t like himself. He’s got a great girlfriend, and he doesn’t understand why she likes him. He cheats on her, and everything goes wrong. Now things are genuinely unravelling for him. His family is broken, dying, he has no girlfriend, the woman he cheated with doesn’t want him…The end.” You know what? I made it sound better than it was. Not only was there no resolution in the story of the central character, but the secondary story that he was writing throughout the book ALSO has no resolution. It is literally interrupted in the final sentences by a ringing telephone, and never finishes. And that’s the end of the book.

You are free to tell me that this is a very worthy thing, that not all stories have a neat conclusion, that the author wanted to write a bleak, dystopic analysis of the psychological makeup of the modern western male. And to that I will say “He shouldn’t have thanked his agent in the back of the book for “giving me the chance to try my hand at comedy” then.”

The next book on my stack is “Go set a watchman”, despite my reservations. I didn’t read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a long time, but when I did get around to reading it, there was still a “19” at the start of the year.

What’s been your favourite book this year?

A week in reading

Sometimes reading feels like famine or feast. I go through periods of brilliant books, then can’t find a damn thing to read anywhere (and when you consider that I work in a library…)

This last week has been a feast period. I started with two fun Star Wars books, downloaded a gripping audio book and found a bargain e-book written by a friend. So let’s start with that one.

Jane Turley is an English writer who I have come to know through G+. She’s cheerful and friendly and encouraging, and has often mentioned that she’s been working on her novel. That novel is “The Changing Room“, and she posted it online this last week. I downloaded a copy, keen to see what she’d produced, expecting – hoping – to enjoy it.

What I didn’t expect was to be totally swept away by it. The book is written from the point of view of Sandy, a wife and mum who is a great salesperson. She doesn’t love her job at the furniture store, but she likes people, and her work helps support her husband’s building company in the tough times of recession. During the course of the novel, Sandy moves from her sales job at the store to a more flexible one working from home, then finds a surprising extra source of income when a friend reveals she runs a sex chat phone service.

Throughout all this Sandy is caring for her mother, who is sliding deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s. Sandy wants to put off taking her mother into care, but it has to happen eventually, for her own safety as much as for Sandy’s sanity.

I won’t detail everything that happens in the book, but suffice to say, I read it in two sittings. Sandy’s life is busy, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s unexpected and familiar at the same time. More than anything, this book feels REAL. I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

The two Star Wars books I read this week were “Allegiance” and “Choices of One” by Timothy Zahn. Both these books are now available under the “Star Wars – Legends” banner, since Disney decided all books produced after “Return of the Jedi” were non-canon. HERESY! Ahem.

I thought I had read both these books before, but I was delighted to discover that I had made a silly mistake. “Allegiance” is the first of the two, and I had only read the second book. When I picked up “Allegiance” last time, I read the blurb and thought it sounded familiar, so I assumed I’d read it. Here’s why:

The first book deals with Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand. She’s got a mission to fulfill. A group of stormtroopers, disgusted with some Xeno-cleansing they have been ordered to take part in, accidentally kill a political officer and go on the run, fortuitously stealing a fully-equipped and disguised ship. They elect to continue as rogue stormtroopers, serving their image of the Empire, as a just bastion of stability and order. Meanwhile, three very familiar rebels are also on a mission – Han, Luke and Leia (and Chewie!) – that takes them into the same area of space.

What follows is a clever dance. Zahn introduced the character of Mara Jade in the first post ROTJ book “Heir to the Empire” and showed us then that she had not met Luke Skywalker previously, though she knew of him and hated him for killing the Emperor. By writing these prequels, Zahn risked contradicting his own work, so he has managed to manipulate the characters and events so that the stormtroopers work with both rebels and Jade, but those two groups never communicate directly with one another.

It’s not world-changing stuff, and it’s really most fun if you’re a fan of Zahn’s previous work and want to see Mara in her prime and Luke as a know-nothing proto-jedi. Read them in order, and be surprised at how you can come to admire a group of stormtroopers.

The audio book I’ve been enjoying this week is “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith (Or JK Rowling, as he’s also known….). Mrs Dim and I both enjoyed “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, finding it mildly less grim than “The Casual Vacancy”, and “The Silkworm” is in much the same vein. Of course, since solving the high-profile Lula Landry murder, Cormoran Strike and Robin are on a much better financial footing, and Cormoran himself has finally found a new place to live, so he’s not sleeping in the office any more.

The book is slower to start, lingering more on the details of Robin and Strike’s lives, but I was perfectly happy with that. Rowling didn’t go into a great deal of detail on her principal characters in the first book, and I was interested in how things had gone for them in the intervening time. There’s still plenty to be told – mention is made several times during the book of the traumatic events that made Robin drop out of her course at university, but unless I missed something, we never found out exactly what it was. Her fiance does express surprise that she wants to become an investigator herself “after what happened”, so there’s a clue there, maybe…

I found myself making excuses to plug my headphones in so I could listen to the story, and inevitably got cross with myself after finishing it. What am I going to listen to now? I enjoyed it so much, i found it hard to understand the negative reviews it garnered on Amazon. Not many, certainly, but I think most were still looking for another Harry Potter book.

Reading recommendations

It’s been a good week for reading. For one thing, I was lucky enough to be chosen as a Beta Reader for Brooke Johnson‘s new novel “The Wizard’s Heart”. A very different style from her steampunk “Clockwork” books, this is a gorgeous fantasy adventure, shot through with action and magic.

I also took a step back in time. I once read Carrie Vaughn’s “After the Golden Age“. It was a time when I was reading a fair amount of superhero fiction and yearning for something new. This was it.

In “After the Golden Age” we are introduced to Celia, the awkward and intransigent daughter of Mr Olympos and Spark, two members of The Olympiad that protect Commerce City. Celia has inherited NO powers, and as a result is kidnapped, repeatedly by bad guy after bad guy. Before long, her rebellious nature and familiarity with bad guy psychology leads her to actually assist the Nemesis of The Olympiad, The Destructor.

The book is about power and the uses of it, but it’s also very much about family and the games they play with one another. It was a great read, with an unexpected and dramatic conclusion, and I was sad that it was over.

When I saw there was a sequel in the library – “Dreams of the Golden Age“, I was tempted but also worried. What could a sequel offer? Everyone knows the problems of sequels – you want the same story over again, but new and different. You can’t have the same excitement of discovery, but having the characters do something new runs the risk of it being…wrong.

In “Dreams of the Golden Age”, Carrie Vaughn sidesteps all these problems neatly. She’s set up Celia’s character in the first book, and this one begins with Celia already the mother of two teenage girls. The eldest is seventeen, the age Celia was at her most rebellious. This book too, then is about family relationships, about trust and secrets, and how understanding your own mistakes of the past doesn’t always prevent you making new and exciting mistakes.

And, of course, there are superpowers too, and crime and rescue and action.

Two book recommendations

Since I stopped keeping count of my monthly book reading, I’ve occasionally found myself composing short reviews of books I’m reading, only to remember that I’m not doing that anymore. Then I realised I COULD still do that if I wanted to.

The world is my oyster. The internet is my hamster ball. The Pompidou Centre was a ghastly mistake that had nothing to do with me.

So, in that spirit, here are two books I have read recently that are worth a look:

Moonwalking with Einstein

Journalism is often writing about something that other people are doing. Josh Foer went a step further when he covered the National Memory Championships in America – he accepted the challenge to train for the following year and compete. Along the way he investigates what memory is, how it works, whether it really can be improved, how it intersects with education, the historical memory versus the modern view, savantism… There’s really so much to this book it’s hard to nail it down.

I got my copy through Audible, which is great because it prevents me skipping paragraphs (something I’m prone to with non-fiction), but it makes it harder to bookmark great passages for later investigation. There are some hints and tips in the book for improving your own memory, but mostly it is a fascinating ride through the history of memory and Josh’s personal journey from reporting on the National Memory Championships to competing in them.

Whispers Under Ground

Whispers Under Ground (Peter Grant)

I picked the first of this series (Midnight Riot) from the paperback stand at my local library. It was great to find an Urban Fantasy book that wasn’t set in America and wasn’t fascinated by vampires or werewolves. Instead, these books follow Peter Grant, a young Detective Constable in the Metropolitan Police, as he stumbles across the arcane branch of the Met that deals with the Supernatural. Well, I say “branch”, but really it’s just Detective Inspector Nightingale. Nightingale takes Grant under his wing (ha! See what I did there?) and introduces him to the other side of London, while slowly coaching him in the art of magic. What’s refreshing about Grant is that he’s a modern guy who feels that doing magic is cool and fun, and he’s also a little bit scientific about the whole thing. When he discovers magic has a devastating effect on microchips, for example, he sets up a simple experiment to establish the range of the effect. He learns from mistakes, and he pushes at the boundaries placed on him by Nightingale. In short, he feels like a real person.

“Whispers” is the third in the series, and again I got it through Audible. The performance is excellent and the story manages to stay logical while still scampering through magic and legend. I just picked up the fourth one this week.

The Book Before Christmas

WP_001457‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse.
They were slumped in the lounge, all watching tv
Some crazy show claiming to be “Reality”
Then a child sneaked a present from under the tree
She ripped off the wrapping with undisguised glee.
Her face fell and she sucked in her breath with a hiss,
She turned to her parents and said “What is THIS?”
They turned from the TV as one just to look:
She held out towards them a beautiful book.
“It’s a book.” said her Dad, “Who on Earth gave you that?”
“I thought Santa would bring you a scarf and a hat…”
“It says it’s from Granny.” said the girl with a frown.
“She always gives presents that let people down.
But what does it DO? Does it play tunes or shows?
I can’t even see where the power lead goes.
There isn’t a screen or some buttons to press.
I can’t think of anything I wanted less.”
Her mother was smiling, her thoughts in a whirl.
“It’s the same book that I had when I was a girl!”
She took the book with trembling hand
And stroked the title “Storyland”
She flipped the pages, smiling wide,
Rediscovered the pictures bright , inside.
“Dad,” she said, not turning round,
“Would you turn off the tv sound?”
When silence fell, but for clock’s chime
She smiled and started “Once upon a time…”
While the TV showed silent, unwatched car chases
They travelled together to distant places.
They escaped the press of the digital age
And lost themselves in words on a page.
And though the book took them far, far away,
They were all home in bed before Christmas Day.
Technology’s great, though it moves on so fast
And tablets and iPods don’t seem built to last.
But consider this Christmas the books that you’ve read
Till the pages were tattered and the words in your head
So familiar to you, you need barely look.
Then give someone you love the gift of a book.

The Books of June

June has been a pleasant month, especially when compared to the misery of last year – We had Juneuary last year…. This time around it’s been better because of the good weather, the visit of my In-Laws (which was great) and the new job (which was unexpected).

The return of the sun has permitted the Weasels to enjoy the garden.

The return of the sun has permitted the Weasels to enjoy the garden.

Of course, none of the above have slowed my reading, and since the new job is at the library, I could pass off collecting more books as “job research”. Here’s the latest research I have compiled:

It- Stephen King

See my earlier review

Night Train to Rigel – Timothy Zahn

I really enjoyed Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels, so I thought I’d give this trilogy a try. It’s a private investigator story, a real Bogart Knight Errant, once a man of the Authority sort of thing. I liked it, but found the politics a bit heavy going, and the hard sci-fi made my brain hurt a little. The idea of real tubes of metal through hyperspace carrying trains….Too much material, I thought.

Storm of Swords – George R R Martin

A long time ago, I had the chance to read the screenplay for the first episode of the TV version of “Game of Thrones”. It was good, but ended too soon, and I wanted to read more. Naturally, I took the book out of the library, but re-reading material I’d already seen in the screenplay was dull, since the book made much heavier going of it (compared to the screenplay, which is by necessity faster and more superficial) I gave it up as a bad job. Since then, I’ve been kept informed of the rough progress of events on GoT by my friends on G+, and when the storm broke about The Red Wedding, I had to go and find out more. Reading the third book without having read the others was tricky, and it wasn’t until I was about halfway through that I felt comfortable with all the characters. It feels like George RR Martin is playing a chess game on a board that has seventeen sides, and he’s doing it in the back of a van driving fast down a cobbled street. And he’s wearing a blindfold, and the rules change every ten minutes.

That said, I’ll be having a go at book four at some point. Just to see who else dies. To be frank, there aren’t many people left.

Warm Bodies – Isaac Marion

Zombies. Love ’em, even if I don’t get to watch many zombie movies these days. I loved the trailer for this movie, and was delighted to find the book delivers even more. There’s the humour, the unique premise of a zombie being “cured” by love, but also some deep philosophical thinking about what life is and how we choose to live. Best of all, I left this lying around carelessly and Middle Weasel picked it up and read it (in three days! That’s my girl!). Now she’s not so bothered about zombies, at least in daylight.

Silver Linings Playbook – Matthew Quick

I don’t think I’m ever going to watch the movie of this story, even though I like both the leads. The book was easy to read, but the story is tough, coming from the point of view of someone suffering from a traumatic head injury and a fairly sad life too. His up-beat outlook doesn’t quite cover all eventualities, but it’s worth sticking it out to the end of the book. Mainly because you’ll have an idea how his accident happened, but you don’t get it confirmed until you reach the last chapter.

The Return of King Doug – Greg Erbe, Jason Oremland, illustrated by Wook Jin-Clark

I haven’t read a graphic novel for a while, and the cover of this one looked like it promised to be fun. And it was! Doug visits the kingdom of Valdonia as a boy, enjoying himself as he escapes from the real world of his parent’s holiday home, down the well and into the magical land beyond, but when the creatures who live in Valdonia ask Doug to lead them in rebellion against the Evil Queen, he runs away. Years later, Doug is living a loser lifestyle, failing to be a responsible father to the child he shares custody of. When that son finds the entrance to Valdonia and is captured by the Queen, Doug must – finally – face up to his responsibilities as a ruler and a Dad.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

Some time ago, someone on G+ posted this article about fantasy novels that are good despite their bad cover art. Mrs Dim said we should track some of them down and give them a go, but every time I found myself in the library, I had forgotten to note any of the titles. The only one I could remember was the name “Patrick Rothfuss” and so I got hold of this book. By then Mrs Dim was stuck into another novel, and didn’t have time to read it, so I tried it.

It’s a fantasy epic, it’s really, really big in scope, though it’s the story of one man. The clue to the scope is the fact that this book could crush a small pony if dropped from the height of four feet, yet it is only “Day One” of the three days the main character is taking to tell his life story. There’s a whole world and tons of history and myth woven through the tale, so the best thing to do is just nod and let it flow through you. I ground my teeth in frustration more than once, but at the end of the book I made a note to get the next in the series. It’s about the same length and is subtitled “day two”. Frankly, if there was a pamphlet with a summary of events, I’d be happy with that.

I’m the kind of person who flips to the back of a gloomy novel to see if it’s worth reading right through to the end. And if it isn’t, I’ll give it up. Life is short enough.

Han Solo at Star’s End – Brian Daley

I mentioned that my In-Laws came to stay. They have a fondness for second-hand bookstores, and I drove them out to one of our local stores one rainy afternoon. Thus I got to browse the sci-fi and fantasy shelves and found this wonderful book that goes with the other two Han Solo books by Brian Daley that I have reviewed in past months. Now I have the whole trilogy again and it’s like revisiting a beloved former home. Also, this is the book that first mentions the Z-95 Headhunter, something that Lego have just produced as a kit because it’s featured in the Clone Wars tv series. I love canon consistency!

The Mammoth Book of Steampunk – Edited by Sean Wallace

I love collections of short stories. For one thing, it’s easy to get to the end of a tale and put the book down when you have something to do, which is harder with chapter books (Just one more! Just one, then I’ll start…) For another, if the quality is good, it’s like reading a dozen novels in a row. This collection only had a couple of stories that didn’t pull me in, though Steampunk seems such a vague genre that the stories vary wildly in time, location, technology, character and outlook. If you haven’t tried Steampunk, this might not be a bad place to start.

This post being late, I’m already into my next set of reading. What’s on YOUR bedside table right now?