Friday, February 28, 2014

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

   Wow! Four and a half months since I've last updated. I'm sorry, anyone who's out there looking for a good book to read - it's been a busy time. I suppose the next couple of posts will be relating to what I can remember reading during those months... The record I was keeping of my reading seems to have been abandoned at about the same time, so I'll work from memory here.
   One of my highlights of the last few months has been reading retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's book 'An Astronaut's Guide to Life on
Earth', which I read over Christmas. I know this has already been a huge bestseller, but if anyone hasn't read it yet, I couldn't recommend it more highly for anyone interested in biography, popular science, and even popular psychology. Hadfield tells the story of his career as an astronaut, including his time as commander of the International Space Station, in his own warm and utterly likeable tone. Anecdotes based on everything from his childhood ambitions of space travel to his eventual spacewalks are interspersed with insights into how character traits which helped his career could be things we could all do with taking on board. 
   Hadfield traces his career as far back as 1969, to when, as an awed nine year-old, he watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the surface of the moon. He decided on the spot to aim towards becoming an astronaut. It's both wildly impressive and intimidating how he describes realising that he could begin this journey straight away. 'I recognized even as a 9-year-old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I'd become.' 'I had to imagine what an astronaut might do if he were 9 years old, then do the exact same thing. [...] Would an astronaut eat his vegetables or have potato chips instead? Sleep in late or get up early to read a book?' To reassure anyone who is imagining a lost childhood, he also says: 'Determined as I was to be ready, just in case I ever got to go to space, I was equally determined to enjoy myself. If my choices had been making me miserable, I couldn't have continued. I lack the gene for martyrdom.'
   The rest of the book hops over and back between early training, Hadfield's most recent stint on the International Space Station last year, and the aforementioned insights into psychology and positive attitude. Many of these latter ideas run directly counter to modern popular psychology, which generally tends to advise us to 'not sweat the small stuff' and extols the 'power of positive thinking'. Hadfield explains how his success has been based on thinking through every tiny aspect of any task, imagining and planning for any bad situation which could possibly occur, and maintaining a great attitude - working hard as a team member and aiming to be the team member quietly contributing steadily from the back, instead of either holding the team back or setting oneself up in front as a leader. Of course, these ideas won't apply to every life situation, but they're definitely worth reading and thinking about, and make a refreshing change from the usual 'self-help' recommendations. 
   This story has a very happy ending, because in January Chris Hadfield was in Dublin promoting the book, and the bookshop I work in was the one selling books at the event. Always meet your heroes!


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Republic of Thieves

   Fans, Scott Lynch's 'The Republic of Thieves' is out in shops today! Non-fans, take note: this is the latest in a highly entertaining fantasy series which you absolutely should read! Unfortunately, this is yet another of those fantasy series with delays of years between installments, so prepare yourselves for a long wait after reading 'The Lies of Locke Lamora', 'Red Seas Under Red Skies', and this excellent third part. I may have possibly seen a tentative date of 2017 for the fourth novel, 'The Thorn of Emberlain' earlier on today, so during the wait you'll have to occupy yourselves with excellent novels such as Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles, Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series and Stormlight Archive (the latter if you really LOOVE waiting), Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle... (If you still need more recommendations, leave a comment!). 
   'The Republic of Thieves' continues the story of a group of master con artists known as the Gentlemen Bastards. I know that this novel is one which the fans have been waiting an awfully long time for, so, in case you haven't read it yet, and in an attempt to be completely spoiler-free, I won't go into any detail regarding plot. Republic does feature our two favourite criminals Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen as they embark on a new adventure. Once again, the narrative is divided as alternate chapters focus on the present-day storyline of Locke and Jean's latest project and the backstory of Locke's childhood and unusual apprenticeship with the previous leader of the Gentlemen Bastards, a priest of the Crooked Warden known as Chains. Republic is as intricate and enthralling an undertaking as its predecessors, and just as satisfying. It does introduce a new aspect of Locke's personality which is somewhat surprising but very rewarding, if a tiny bit forced at times. (Aagh it's difficult to be so vague!). If you've ever enjoyed a fantasy novel, and probably even if you never have, go out and try these. It's great fun wrapped up in some beautifully detailed locations, shrewd scheming, and plentiful evidence of the wild and devious imagination of the author. 
   This week I also read 'Starters' by Lissa Price, which I thought was quite a good new Young Adult dystopian thriller. In a future world where the use of biological weapons have killed everyone on Earth between the ages of 20 and 60, the old-age 'Enders' have all the power. Legislation has been passed banning young 'Starters' from working, so minors who have not been sponsored by an 'Ender' are liable to be rounded up by law enforcement and institutionalised, leading to a huge gulf between Enders and their families and the homeless and disenfranchised Starter children. Callie is an unsponsored minor, and in an attempt to earn some money to pay for medical treatment for her sick brother, she goes to a company which offers wealthy Enders the opportunity to hire, and temporarily transfer their consciousness to, the body of a beautiful and healthy young Starter. This process is not legal, but Callie's problems quickly become much more severe than getting caught when she comes to realise that the Ender who is renting her body has some sinister plans for it. This is an entertaining read, with some of the consequences of such an inequal and lopsided society seeming only too possible in reality. The female protagonist is having a strong moment in teen literature right now, but there's always room for more, and Callie fits in well with this trend. Teens who enjoyed 'The Hunger Games' and anyone who enjoys a nice dystopia (!) should check this one out. 
   Until next time!


Monday, September 16, 2013

Happy Hour in Hell and Russian Roulette

   This one's going to be brief, folks. I've got a new job in a lovely bookshop where I am the new victim staff member presiding over the children's and young adult (YA) sections. I joke, of course. You may have gathered that I love children's and YA literature from previous posts here, here, here, here, here... You get the idea. I'm finding reading time, and reviewing time, to be rare commodities these days. Anyway, I have been doing some appropriate reading - the brand new Alex Rider prequel, 'Russian Roulette', and my current read, 'Tinder' by Sally Gardner, due November 7th (more about that one closer to the time!). 
   'Russian Roulette' tells the story of the origins of the sinister assassin Yassen Gregorovich, a recurring foe of Alex Rider's throughout the series. The story unfolds as Yassen reads through his diary - one of his most prized possessions - as he prepares for his opportunity to kill Alex. The diary recounts his childhood in a small industrial town 600 miles from Moscow. His parents work in the local chemical plant, and young Yasha passes time either in school or playing with his friends. One day, soon after hearing some loud and strange noises from the direction of the chemical factory, Yasha's parents arrive home unexpectedly in a strange car. They confess to Yasha that, rather than manufacturing detergents or pharmaceuticals, they have been involved in highly classified government research into chemical weapons. An accident at the plant has resulted in the release of the strain of anthrax on which they were working into the air. Yasha's parents have stolen a dose of the antidote, broken out of the factory, and made their way home in a stolen car to give Yasha the antidote and tell him to run. So begins a terrifying journey to Moscow, where he knows nobody, and sets him on his path towards working for SCORPIA, one of the most infamous criminal organisations in the world, which is where we have seen him throughout the Alex Rider series. 
    'Russian Roulette' is a thrilling and cleverly-plotted exploration of the making of a ruthless assassin. Yasha (who becomes Yassen through being too scared to correct someone), begins the novel as an immensely sympathetic character, having just lost both his parents. It's fascinating to see how far this sympathy takes us along his journey towards becoming that killer (I never completely lost it, and I'm certain a re-read of any of the Alex Rider series in which he appears would now be a vastly different experience to my first reading), and to notice how rational, sensitive, intelligent, and sensible he seems. Yassen was always one of the most interesting characters in the Alex Rider series, and the series' many fans will be queuing up to read this extra excellent installment. 
   The other book I've read this week is the forthcoming second installment in Tad Williams' new urban fantasy series featuring angel Bobby Dollar - 'Happy Hour in Hell'. My thoughts on the first in the series, 'The Dark Streets of Heaven', are here. In case any of you haven't yet read that first book, I'll be as spoiler-free as possible here. Bobby Dollar is an angelic advocate, speaking on behalf of the souls of the recently deceased and arguing for their admission into Heaven, a duty in which he daily comes up against a Hellish counterpart. For this second book, suffice it to say that, for reasons you will have to read 'Dirty Streets' to understand, Bobby Dollar spends a lot of time in Hell. 
   Hell turns out to be, as you might have expected, a pretty horrible place. Williams describes dozens of levels, each uniquely disturbing and disgusting. In one area, 'many of the brackish ponds... were surrounded by the bodies of the damned, purple and bloated but still twitching. Poison didn't kill you in Hell, it just made you suffer and suffer and suffer.' This horror continues throughout most of the novel, with awful demons, payments in blood, slavery, mutation, and torture. It's all so unrelenting that it makes Bobby start to really doubt the justice of the whole system. Whatever horrible things some of these beings did in life, surely it couldn't justify eternity in pain. A couple of hundred years maybe, but eternity? Anyway, as Bobby is having his qualms, so was I - reading through this litany of horror became more of a means to an end (finding out what happens to the character) than a pleasure in itself. It's undeniably well-written and, in a strange way, entertaining, but just really not something I enjoyed reading. I'll certainly be more careful to judge the tastes of a reader before recommending this one, but for anyone who's ok with gruesome horror, this would be a great read!


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Here be Dragons

   Two of the books I read this week concerned one of my main loves in fantasy literature - dragons. They were 'Blood of Tyrants' by Naomi Novik and 'Joust' by Mercedes Lackey. 
  'Blood of Tyrants' is the eighth book in the Temeraire series, briefly mentioned previously by me here. It was released yesterday by Del Rey in the US, but the UK publication date has not been decided yet, as far as I can tell. The series has been optioned by Peter Jackson, so we'll have to just keep our fingers crossed that something ends up being done with this terrific source material.
    In this penultimate adventure, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves in Japan, China, and then Russia as they head towards a final showdown with Napoleon. The novel opens in Japan, as we discover that poor Laurence has been subjected to the somewhat tired plot device of an accident causing amnesia. He has forgotten everything which has occurred in the years since he captured Temeraire's egg. Luckily, in this case the device does serve the interesting purpose of illustrating very clearly the major changes of opinion which Laurence has experienced, primarily towards dragons and aviators. When he is first reunited with Temeraire early on in the novel, his behaviour towards that noble beast shows a stark contrast to that of the previous years of adventure. It's a neat way of showing rather than telling the reader to what an extent the character has developed.
   Temeraire is his usual self - brave, sometimes capricious, always loyal. We are introduced to yet more fascinating species of dragons - in this case Japanese species - and intriguing concepts of how they fit into Japanese society. The action escalates nicely towards what will be the final volume in this series, as Laurence, Temeraire, and their Chinese and Russian allies prepare for a climactic final battle with Napoleon. However, I felt that the major strength of this book is in the thought it provokes on some more serious issues. By introducing dragons in various societies (those owned by rebels in Western China and the Russian dragons, in particular) which are treated poorly, or like animals, the reader is forced to consider issues of self-determination and of natural rights and justice. Throughout this series, readers will have come to know dragons, through Temeraire, to have the same potential for compassion, bravery, and cruelty,  to respond as well to education and justice, as their human counterparts. How then can the we approve of the treatment of these creatures, for example in Russia, where massive metal pins may be driven deep into the animals' muscles to enable them to be chained up? How can we approve of human 'masters', for example the British, forcing the animals to fly into battle and fight fiercely, without respect for the animals wellbeing beyond physical fitness and without any pay? Of course, while these are valid questions in the world of the novel, they are worthless in the real world except in so far as they prompt the reader to think about the thinly-veiled analogy of slavery. If we object so viscerally to the treatment of these animals in the novel, how much more strongly must we react to these events in the real world. Slavery is a worse problem in the world at the moment than it ever has been in the past - today an estimated 12-27 million people remain slaves worldwide.  
   To briefly return to my purpose - a few words about 'Joust' by Mercedes Lackey. I picked this
up secondhand in Raven Books in Blackrock, Dublin - a haven for bibliophiles, if you're ever in the area! It was published in 2003, and unfortunately my search for more standalone fantasy novels is not yet over, as it is the first of four. It combines alternative history of Ancient Egypt with animal husbandry - in this case of dragons. 
   Vetch is an indentured serf, bound to serve a master who took his family's farm and was responsible for the death of his father. This master is particularly cruel to Vetch, doing just barely enough to keep the boy alive. One day, a passing Jouster (dragon rider) observes this cruelty, and as a way of taking Vetch away from his master, claims the serf (as property of the Great King) in order to make Vetch his dragon boy, caring for the dragon and its equipment. Of course, as a farmer's son, Vetch shows a great aptitude for this work. He becomes intrigued with the accomplishment of his new master Ari, who is the only Jouster whose dragon is genuinely tame, and not simply drugged into docility. 
   In the detailed descriptions of dragon behaviour, training methods, and husbandry, 'Joust' reminds me somewhat of another fantasy I've read recently - 'Zenn Scarlett' by Christian Schoon, discussed here. I'd recommend both of these novels to any young person interested in animals. Also, interestingly, while the slavery aspect of 'Joust' is actually much more explicit and discussed more frequently than in 'Blood of Tyrants', I didn't feel that it was as thought-provoking. Altogether a very fun read. 
   Exciting news - I've just received my advance reading copy of Scott Lynch's long-awaited follow-up to 'The Lies of Locke Lamora' and 'Red Seas Under Red Skies' - 'The Republic of Thieves'. I can't wait to read, and I'll let you know (spoiler-free) closer to the release date! 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling

   On Monday and Tuesday this week, just in time for it's famous author's birthday today, I read 'The Cuckoo's Calling'. There can be few members of the news-consuming public who haven't heard the recent story that this crime novel, published in April under the name of Robert Galbraith, was actually written by the world's richest and possibly most famous author, J. K. Rowling. After a nasty period during which sceptics proclaimed that the leak of this information was undoubtedly a marketing ploy undertaken by either Rowling herself or her publishers, it was announced that the information actually reached the public domain through the indiscretion of a lawyer, who let the secret slip to a personal friend. 
   In my opinion, it's unfortunate that the truth of the novel's authorship has been revealed at such an early stage - it would have been very interesting to see whether it could have become a success based on its own merits, and whether its popularity would have taken another book or two to really gather momentum. The subject also provokes some thought about a publishing environment in which a debut by an unknown author which garners universally high reviews from a few critics and other crime authors still only sells a few hundred copies. What hope is there for authors of similarly accomplished novels who don't happen to have a famous name to fall back on? Anyway, I like to think that word-of-mouth would have built over the course of the next couple of years for this, as was the case with Harry Potter, and that it could have been a success even without the recent revelations. Because this is a novel that always deserved success.
     I had unwittingly been preparing very well for reading 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by almost
Sphere, £12.99
exclusively reading Agatha Christie for the last few weeks. Declan Burke says in his Irish Times review
that 'Rowling is reported to be a fan of the Golden Age of British crime fiction as written by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy L Sayers' and I agree that this is very much a classic puzzle-solving detective mystery in the vein of those. I was certainly pleased that any violence depicted bears a closer relationship to those classics than to more modern, and more gruesome, novels. 
   Briefly (since I know it would have been next to impossible not to have read a review of this already somewhere), Cormoran Strike is a private detective who is down to his last chance. He's just left his girlfriend so he's living in his office, he's deeply in debt, his business is failing due to lack of custom, and his prosthetic lower leg is making life difficult. One Monday morning, Robin Ellacott turns up, sent as a temp secretary by the agency to work for him for a week. She is thrilled by the sign on the door - 'Private Detective' - sensing possibilities for more exciting work than endless photocopying and filing. Not long after she arrives, something very unusual happens - a new client presents himself, asking Strike to investigate the sudden death of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry, three months previously. Robin plays the efficient secretary and offers refreshment to both Strike and his client, and it is only as she leaves the room having taken an order from each man that Strike remembers 'that he did not have any coffee, sugar or, indeed, cups.' Strike initially agrees to investigate the case due to presence of ready money, and at double his usual rate, but he quickly finds his innate sense of justice and his conscience leading him onwards.
   While I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, I admit that I did not particularly enjoy Rowling's literary fiction offering last year 'The Casual Vacancy', so it wasn't an absolutely foregone conclusion that I would like this one. However, Rowling's newest creations are enormously interesting and appealing - I felt myself invested in the characters by the time I was 20 pages into the novel. While the narrative is as satisfyingly complex as a Poirot mystery and as thrilling, it never feels as if characterisation, character development, beautiful language and description have been sacrificed to serve a fast-moving plot. Indeed, I felt that 'The Cuckoo's Calling' had the largest cast of fully fleshed-out characters that I've read in a while. Strike and his sidekick Robin make an unlikely but thoroughly fascinating and entertaining pair, so I'm delighted to read that Rowling has reportedly already finished the sequel, which will be published next year. 
   Go forth and read, folks!

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Slow Month for Reading

So I have rediscovered during this last few weeks the delight of rereading as a fantastically comforting occupation in rough times. During June I've reread some Wheel of Time, a couple of Agatha Christie mysteries, my favourite Fred Vargas, and my ultimate happy-time in book form - Harry Potter. It's been an enjoyable, but not very productive, reading time. Of course, while familiar settings, characters, and ideas are very comforting, there should also be time for the more positive and forward-thinking activity of discovering new favourites. The two books I've read for the first time in the last month have been 'Toby Alone' by Timothée de Fombelle and 'Proxy' by Alex London.
   'Proxy' was released a few weeks ago on June 18th by Penguin US. Here's the blurb:

Knox was born into one of the City's wealthiest families. A Patron, he has everything a boy could possibly want—the latest tech, the coolest clothes, and a Proxy to take all his punishments. When Knox breaks a vase, Syd is beaten. When Knox plays a practical joke, Syd is forced to haul rocks. And when Knox crashes a car, killing one of his friends, Syd is branded and sentenced to death.

Syd is a Proxy.  His life is not his own.

Then again, neither is Knox’s. Knox and Syd have more in common than either would guess. So when Knox and Syd realize that the only way to beat the system is to save each other, they flee. Yet Knox’s father is no ordinary Patron, and Syd is no ordinary Proxy. The ensuing cross-country chase will uncover a secret society of rebels, test both boys’ resolve, and shine a blinding light onto a world of those who owe and those who pay. Some debts, it turns out, cannot be repaid.

   I really enjoyed this one. It was a lightning-quick read - I finished in a matter of hours. Syd is an extremely sympathetic main character - generous, compassionate, and practical. The relationship between him and Knox, from whose point of view the story is also told, starts off on a very rocky basis as Syd is Knox's 'whipping boy' - taking severe punishments every time (and there are many) that Knox breaks the rules. While some of the science didn't fully make sense (I thought), I'd thoroughly recommend this to fans of 'The Hunger Games' - it's also a whirlwind adventure which does provoke some deeper thought about class structures, democracy, and justice. Great summer reading for adults too!
    'Toby Alone' was first released as 'La Vie Suspendue' in France in 2006, and was
subsequently translated by Sarah Ardizzone and released for the UK market in 2008. As well as being on my 'Books About Tiny People' list, I decided it was a good time to read this one at the moment because of the opportunity to compare it to an animated movie with some similarities - 'Epic', released in May. Both feature tiny people living in the forest, and both promote a environmental message. Both put this message forward in quite a simplistic way - the two dimensional 'baddies' try to destroy the tree or forest, and the equally two dimensional heroes try to stop them. I never felt that the sizes described in 'Toby Alone' would be at all feasible - is 1.5 millimetres small enough that most of the characters in the book believe that their Tree is the whole extent of the world, making talk of other Trees tantamount to heresy? I'm glad I read this, and it was an enjoyable and at times very fun read, but I probably won't bother reading the sequel. I'll just have to find more of my 'Books About Tiny People' to obsess over - possibly Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad trilogy - 'Truckers', 'Diggers', and 'Wings'.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Holiday Reads

A lucky quirk of fate has resulted in my having five days off in a row this week - hurray for unexpected holidays! I've read two books - Emma Newman's 'Any Other Name' and Catherynne Valente's 'The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There'. 
Angry Robot, £8.99

   'Any Other Name' is the follow-up to this Spring's release in the Split Worlds series - 'Between Two Thorns' (you can find my review here). It's due for release on June 6th. 'Any Other Name' picks up directly where the first novel leaves off, as Cathy prepares for the very advantageous match which has been made for her by her family and their Patron. It doesn't matter in Fae high society that this marriage is the last thing that Cathy wants - her parents and family elders have total control of her fate. 'Any Other Name' continues some of the plotlines introduced in the first novel, as well as presenting new locations, characters, and phenomena - Max the arbiter continues his investigation into the strange events concerning his colleagues, Sam the mundane (person untouched by Fae magic) tries to help some of the 'innocents' captured by Fae in the first book, and we discover London society and its brightest stars, and the mysterious members of the Elemental Court.
   The strange conventions of Fae society continue to bear more resemblance to the Edwardian era than to the modern day, which makes it particularly hard for Cathy - who has lived for a time in the modern world - to accept once again her place in her family and next to her husband. She is expected to attend to interior decorating, hiring of servants, embroidery, and the perpetuation of her husband's family name. It makes interesting reading from this perspective alone, as we see how Cathy struggles to figure out how exactly she is going to bring about wholesale change in this backward social group.
   This seems like a classic 'middle book' in a series, with the accompanying issues. How to develop characters and plotlines, achieve perhaps minor but no major resolution, while maintaining the interest of readers. This novel does manage the feat quite well, but I didn't feel that it also forms a novel which could satisfyingly be read as a standalone, which is disappointing. I have to say that, while so many of them are amazing (and this one is very good), I'm very bored at the moment with the obsession of publishers for making any science-fiction or fantasy novel into a series. I'm dying to read a couple of good new standalone novels! (Suggestions in a comment, if you have any!) Having said all of that, this series is well worth the read, and Cathy is a fantastically sympathetic creation - I rooted for her as I haven't for a character in a while.
   As you may know if you've come across my blog before, Catherynne Valente is one of my
Constable and Robinson, £9.99
absolute favourite authors (my review of 'Deathless' is here). 'The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There' is the sequel to the much-lauded 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making', which was released last year (my review is here).

   I really want to avoid any spoilers of either book here, as I love them both so much and really want everyone to read them. Suffice it to say that September is a little older and wiser in this instalment - she returns to the magical world of Fairyland and discovers that all is not well there. In the course of her adventures she meets a host of new characters - the Duke of Teatime and his wife the Vicereine of Coffee, Aubergine the Night-Dodo who is a student of Quiet Physics, gets a Watchful dress, and takes a ride on an Electric Eel. The illustrations are once again by Ana Juan, and are simply beautiful. These are marvelous adventures, written with a clarity and fluidity which is just miraculous.
Illustration from The Girl Who Fell Beneath.., Ana Juan