I don't remember why I thought this would be a good book to read. Perhaps because it was one of those "gothic novels" and I had just read one that I liked a lot. The Owl Service is a short novel, but it took me ages to finish it. Whenever I had the time to read/listen to it I always found something else to do. I think Alan Garner wanted to do right by the story, which is a reimagining of a traditional Welsh legend, but it ended up an opaque and pretentious mess with characters that you cannot stand. If at least the writing had called to me. Garner is not a bad writer, but the style of writing didn't capture my attention. I had to make efforts to stay in the story and not let my mind wander.
The plot revolves around a valley in Wales where a British family owns property and where the locals are treated as uneducated peasants. The family comes to spend the summer and weird things start to happen. But they are either completely random or, when it comes to be some sort of possession or empowerment, there is always someone near to break the spell or destroy things in fear and righteous anger, which made it all rather boring. At no point there was anyone saying "Oh, that's peculiar, let's dig into it!" or "Hey, I can make books fly by themselves, let's see if I can solve world hunger or space exploration".
The worst part was the characters, all entitled twats. Every single one of them believes he can order other around, force things upon them or do and say whatever the hell they want. And I mean everyone, including the Welsh help. If they don't insult you, force things upon you or treat you like scum just because you are different, they smack you upon the head with indignation for not having done what was rudely ordered to you. And that's the maid doing it!
Bottom line: as a scholar of Welsh legend and the literary interpretation of myth in British literature I... hell, no! Just leave this book be! It's just bad.
We are all racists. We belittle dinosaurs for getting extinct, we pump our chests and declare we are the highest pinnacle of evolution and they are inferior, failed experiments of nature, we, mammals, are clearly the superior product. Yet they existed and flourished and ruled every ecosystem on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. Even today the number of species of birds, the direct ancestors of dinosaurs, is more than double the number of species of mammals. Kenneth Lacovara starts his book with a similar assumption: Einstein was a schmuck! Every one of his great achievements means nothing because, in the end, Einstein died. If that idea is ridiculous for him, how come we still use it for dinosaurs?
Why Dinosaurs Matter is a short book, one in the TED Books series, and it pretty much adds detail to Lacovara's TED talk, like all of the TED books. Frankly, I am not very happy with the series, as it often adds little to the ideas summarised in the talks themselves. Some people are spending a lot of effort to summarize existing books into 15 minutes bite size media and TED books do the opposite, adding fat onto already fleshed out ideas. That doesn't mean this book is bad. It is well written, it has a lot of useful information, but it felt disjointed, like a combination of an opinion piece and a history book of discovered fossils. It gets its point across, but that's about it.
And the point is that we can learn a lot from dinosaurs, from how they spread around the world, adapted to all kinds of environments and the biological innovations they brought on with this. We can learn from their apparently absolute dominion and their immediate and humiliating downfall. Being at the top of the food chain is not only a matter of prideful boasting, but also a fragile spot with multiple dependencies. Once the natural order is disrupted, the top of the pyramid is the first to topple.
Bottom line: it is a nice introductory book in the world of dinosaurs, but not more than that. It's short enough to read on a long train ride or plane flight and it can be easily read by a child or teenager.
One Word Kill starts off like an episode of Stranger Things. You've got the weird kid, his weird friends and the mysterious girl who is both beautiful, smart and hangs out with them to play D&D, all set in the 80's. Then the main character gets cancer and his future self comes to save... the girl. There is also a school boy psycho after them. But that's where the similarities end... the rest of the story is just... nothing. People explain things that needed little explaining and make no sense, good kids and their parents run around from a school boy, as psychotic as he could possibly be, without involving police or gang member allies and, in the middle of all the drama: cancer, psycho killer, future self, time travel... they play Dungeons and Dragons, a game that promotes imagination and creativity that then the protagonists fail to use in any amount in their real life.
Having just read Prince of Thorns, I really expected a lot more from Mark Lawrence. Instead I get a derivative and boring story that brings absolutely nothing new to the table. It's reasonably well written, I guess, but nothing Wow!, which is exactly the reaction reviewers seem to have about this book. Have I read a different story somehow?
Bottom line: I am tempted to rate this average, on account of other raving reviews and on the fact that I liked another Mark Lawrence book, but I have to be honest with me and rate this book alone, which I am sorry to say, is sub par.
While on the road with his mother and baby brother, a ten year old prince is attacked by an enemy armed group. Thrown into a patch of thorns from where he could not move, only watch, he sees his mother defiled and killed and his brother smashed on a rock like a toy. He vows vengeance. Such a classic story, right? Only we see him a few years later, leading a band of brigands, murdering and looting and raping, his vengeance all but forgotten and replaced by a desire to unite all the hundred little states warring against each other. Well, more interesting, but still pretty classic, right? Nope, stuff still happens that makes the lead character (and you) doubt his thoughts and the true nature of reality and retroactively explains some of the more incredulous questions that the reader is asking.
I would say Prince of Thorns is all about revealing layers of this world that Mark Lawrence is still shaping. I quite liked that. The first book sets things up, but it is not a setup book. It is filled with action. Nor does it tell us everything, leaving a lot to be explored in the next books in the series. That's something that is sorely missing in many modern stories. In order to enjoy the book, though, you have to suspend your disbelief when it tells of an eleven year old boy smashing heads, swinging swords and leading men. Yes, in feudal times being 11 is the time to have a midlife crisis, but it is all a little bit too much for a child.
It is a game of thrones kind of book, but mercifully from the standpoint of a single character. There is not a lot of lore, but there is magic and a mysterious connection to an advanced but now dead civilisation, plenty of violence and strategy. I will probably read the next books in the series.
The Grace of Kings feels long from the very start. Ken Liu is starting off from a fictional empire of seven islands, but it might as well have been a historical book. Everything is mostly realistic, with very human characters that do what human characters do: harm and kill other people and find rationalizations for it. Some of them are heroic and occasionally think of other people, too.
Half way through the book (which is one of a trilogy, of course) I couldn't keep up with all the characters that kind of did the same thing, the long expositions of why people did stupid or horrible things to others and the various anecdotes that made some of the characters heroes or villains. And I call them anecdotes because that's what they feel like: short moments that disrupt rather than enforce the long and unfortunately boring history of the realm.
Bottom line, it feels like a Chinese Game of Thrones, with less interesting characters and no magic as of yet. It's not badly written, quite the contrary, but its subject is long winding and doesn't interest me. I will therefore abandon reading it.
Wakenhyrst is very well written, but where it excels is the dissection of the hypocrisy of people. Michelle Paver is telling the story from the viewpoint of a young girl who must navigate the world and her own adolescence in the house of a father that has no love for her or for her mother, finds every reason to blame others for his shortcomings and deeds, and yet is untouchable because he is a man and the lord of the manor. What legions of screeching feminists could not do, Paver manages with her subdued, yet defiant description of how women are used and ignored and pretty much treated as glorified pets. It is impossible to not hate the father figure in the book, even as the main character is torn between wanting to forgive him and dealing with the creepy and sometimes evil shit he pulls. The ending is powerful, as the daughter finds the strength to sublimate her hate into an even more appropriate emotion: pity.
But the story's power is not limited to the detailed analysis of the human psyche. It binds together Anglican folklore, medieval beliefs about devils and angels and art, whitewashed (in the actual sense of the term) by Puritans and systematically destroyed by Victorians, the power of untamed nature and the horror of the human complacency. How refreshing to have a very young girl be the rational and intelligent agent that fends for herself in a world of mystical belief and societal poppycock, so that we can identify with her and see it as it was. How wonderful to have Paver describe it all without any trace of anachronism, as if she has lived in that world herself.
The story starts slow and the pace almost never picks up, yet the tension and the level of details are constantly increasing, managing to somehow convey at the same time two distinct and contrary feelings: one of slow burn and the other of untamed power rising to a crescendo. It brilliantly mingles the oppressive hot wet feel of subconscious fear and superstition with cold analytical reason as its adversary. In the beginning I wanted to rate it above average only, but now, the more I think about it the more I admire the writing and the way the book tells the story. Good job, Michelle Paver!
Bottom line: move past the slower start, it is certainly worth reading. A gothic tale of subliminal supernatural horror and a very human and real one at the same time.
Salvation Lost is the second book in the Salvation Sequence trilogy from Peter F. Hamilton. I was commenting on the previous book saying that it is mostly filler and action that is irrelevant to the larger story. This book is a lot more action packed and a bit more interesting, but ultimately just as pointless. A lot of characters that will only get relevant in the third book, if at all, a lot of stories that happen in the past as we know what is going 10000 years into the future and no closure on anything. The horror of the alien invasion is powerful, but not as much as it could have been. The story invests so much in some people only to kill them later with no apparent effect on the timeline of events.
Bottom line: I will probably read the last book, scheduled sometime in Sep 2020, but I feel this series is one of Hamilton's weakest.
I consider Peter F. Hamilton to be one of the great science fiction writers. Yes, he has a formula, yes he messes up the endings, but the ideas and worlds that he puts on paper have rarely disappointed me. I can't say that of Salvation, either, but I didn't especially like it, as it gives away too much too soon, then proceeds on boring or enraging the reader with police procedural vignettes that we already know will have no impact on future events.
Hamilton has this method of combining at least two threads, usually one is hard science fiction and the other is fantasy or police procedural or something different, only to bind them together at some point in time. In this book, we see a group of people running away from an enemy species bent on exterminating humanity and also a peaceful future in which humanity has discovered how to create instantaneous transport portals to other places and was contacted by two different alien species. Somehow, how we get from one point to the other is the topic of the book, but the vast majority of it is about corporate security people that abuse their power to "get things done" or toxic cleanup people or other kinds of short stories that only bring some new information to light while eating up reading time. Then the book ends!
And it's a bit annoying that even the technical aspects don't add up, like how you can know how to make portals, but you still rely on nuclear weapons or rockets to do war, or that people fear sabotage and terrorism, but don't see the possible threat posed by personal portals to other worlds. Gravity alterations, atmosphere loss or pollution, a portal from a star to an inhabited area would have been much more dangerous. Also some of the ways characters act are completely unnatural and it feels jarring to see them do things in a sequence (heh!) only to further the story and not consistent to their character and expertise.
Anyway, I am reading Salvation Lost now, but in my view the first book in this series could have been a lot more, especially from a brilliant writer such as Hamilton.
This is How You Lose the Time War came highly recommended by a Goodreads buddy of mine as the way to write sci-fi. I don't know what to say about that. He was so ebullient about how great the book was that there was bound to be some disappointment. It is nicely written and touches, under the guise of science fiction, the intricacies of human relationships and feelings. But other than that it was just one idea, stretched over 200 pages, in something that was both short and felt unreasonably long. Perhaps some time issues need arise when time travel is involved.
What I found interesting is that it is a double author book. Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone worked on it together although I suspect it was mostly El-Mohtar with the story and Gladstone with the tech stuff, although I could be just stereotyping. To me, it felt like the story has a distinctly female vibe.
Bottom line: it's a very humanist type of story: the time war, the tech, they are all props. One could have written the same kind of stuff about African tribes or corporate lawyers. After a while everything started to feel repetitive and stale only to reach the all too predictable ending. Nice book, but not great.
A Short History of Nearly Everything is very well researched, subtly written and does pretty much what it says: explain the history of science up to the present as humanity is trying to figure out where it came from, how long ago it happened and how things actually work. It's a dense work, which makes it a long read. You either go through it and not retain much or you have to read bit by bit and think on each for a while. I read it bit by bit and retained little.
Anyway, as I was reading The Invention of Nature, another great popular science book, I've stumbled upon this quote "There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person." and never have I thought about it so much as when reading A Short History of Nearly Everything. In fact, the same quote appears in the book near the end. As Bill Bryson describes it, most of science is accidental and has to fight a plethora of egos that believe they are better than you just in order to surface. Many times the work is lost, misattributed, stolen or sabotaged into oblivion by personal opponents. As such, the book has a wonderful freshness from the tired history of science that we are so often presented where very smart people think of something and then everybody applauds and accepts another idea that will further human knowledge. The book is also about how little we know about many things that usually are presented as completely clear, fully researched and completely understood. All in all, it's a book that needs reading.
"So", you will say, "isn't this another Sapiens?". No. I liked Sapiens and its funny and accessible style made it an instant hit worldwide. A Short History of Nearly Everything is way better. It focuses more on sciences like geology and anthropology and abstract physics and on the personal histories of the people involved in the discoveries rather than on humanity as a whole, so it's a bit harder. When it does look at humanity it sees it as small, petty and destructive. Sapiens makes you feel good, this makes you feel ashamed and happy you are still alive.
I have to say that I almost abandoned reading it; it is that dense and full of information. If I was reading a novel in three days, spending weeks trudging through knowledge made me feel both too stupid and getting smarter at the same time. Surely I could find a better way to entertain myself, I thought. This book is entertaining, but it requires focus to read and understand. In the end, I am very glad I've read it.
This is a very short story that is barely science fiction. It describes a place of lowlifes, living on despair, terror and violence. Among them, a bland guy that seems to be unaffected by anything, but that can explode into violence in a second. If you just thought this character has similarities with Amos Burton, you thought right and the surprise is that he was not born with that name. This is kind of his origin story.
I felt that The Churn was a bit lazy. A criminal boss character that calls his large underdog "little man" was also used in Gods of Risk, for example. Then there is nothing that binds the plot to space and time. It can be any place of ill repute, whether on Mars, Earth or anywhere else, in the future, the present or the past. Indeed, if you ignore the last pages, it's not even about Amos, but about other characters that have incidental contact with him.
Bottom line: it brings nothing new to any table and it is barely an Amos story, clearly not an Expanse one.
The story is of little girl Cara, daughter of colonists on Laconia, discovering dog-like creatures in the forest, apparently able to fix anything. When her brother is killed in an accident, she takes his body to her friends, to get him fixed. Adults, though, feel differently about the whole thing.
Strange Dogs is one of the more sci-fi shorts in The Expanse universe, though still focusing on very relatable characters and very well written. The events here foreshadow some things in Tiamat's Wrath, which makes me believe the dogs' influence on the whole Expanse plot will be important. Now I can only hope that the ninth novel in the book series won't be the last.
I just finished watching the fourth season of The Expanse TV series and, in strong withdrawal, I started reading the Expanse shorts written by James S.A. Corey. Serendipity has it that Gods of Risk is covering most of the Bobbie Draper subplot in the TV season I just watched and that the story happens during Christmas (although what Christmas means on Mars is a bit vague).
The story is less detailed and with characters pretty different from the TV series, after all it's a short novella, but the basic plot is that same: nephew gets in trouble with the local underworld, aunt Bobbie kicks ass and saves him. It's well written and contains that element of world lesson that I felt was in Auberon. In this case, the only reason the good Martian nephew gets in trouble is his affection for a girl and his desire to protect her after she begs for help. Help provided, despite warnings from both his aunt and her pimp, she spurns him. A good lesson for adolescents everywhere.
Want to feel old? Flea (born Michael Peter Balzary) writes this memoir at 57. In Acid for the Children, he covers his life from childhood in Australia up to, but not including, the Red Hot Chili Peppers era. And it's a nice book, one of those autobiographies that are written with honesty and nostalgia and that shares the lessons the author learned during his life.
Michael was a scrawny kid, with either physically abusive, alcoholic or indifferent parent figures, born in a poor family. Yet his spirit was that of an artist, so he did what kids like that do: lots of risk taking, misdemeanors just for the sake of it, lots and lots of drugs of all kinds. In the book he thanks his guardian angels for not getting HIV or other life ending diseases or addictions. By the time he got noticed as a base player, he had escaped most of the mentality and came to grips with his parents. He even leans towards snowflake territory at the end there. The book is loosely chronological in order, made of various anecdotes. How he remembers stuff from his childhood with so much detail when I don't remember what happened ten years ago is a mystery, but that's how some people are.
It's always good to read books like these. Makes you see the world with different eyes. In Flea's case, he made me realize that people do drugs from different reasons: some want to reach a potential they feel is right under their skin, they use them as tools to uncover themselves and when they do, they reach a place of bliss and pure joy. Others want to get to the bliss and joy directly, with no talent or drive to talk of, so they become addicts and "losers". Perhaps that's a kind of uncovering themselves, too. He also made me realize that you need some life experience to be able to access the emotions that are required to do art. It may seem obvious, but when our highest drama is who said what on Twitter or how beautiful is the scenery in a tour guided vacation, we don't have that experience. Lost to this illusion of safety in efficiency as cogs in the machine we lose not only our individuality, but our chances to even become people.
Bottom line: Flea is a really nice guy, if he can say so himself, and it becomes clear as the book progresses that he had that from the very start, he just had to jump through some hoops to make that work for him. I am glad he made it. I liked the book.
What I like about Brandon Sanderson is his optimism. In the Skyward universe people are quarantined on a planet while regular alien incursions must be repelled by younger and younger pilots flying crappier and crappier fighters. Anyone else would have made this a bleak post-apocalyptic story. Not Sanderson. He somehow makes it feel cheery!
In Starsight we learn more about the aliens and the thing that made them all hate humans so. Spensa has to navigate (pun intended) another flight training school, but in a totally different context and the things she learns are even more valuable for the survival of the human race.
This is a simple linear book with few but relatable characters and a fast pace. I finished it in a day. Skyward is not the best series of Sanderson's, being of a sub-genre that I disconsider, the one of the smart savage that learns the secrets of the world and advances in it with no particular problems and often with the help of overpowered "ancient" artifacts. It's not really that bad here, but I have to compare it with The Reckoners, which has a similar cheery vibe, but also terrible loss and realistic pain. Skyward is just too soft.
Bottom line: almost pulp, I enjoyed reading the book, but I also felt that it didn't bring too much at the table.