Sunday, 31 January 2016

Incoming!

I am so excited to have a copy of The Map of Bones to read (and as an extra bonus the proof matches my Alpha The Fire Sermon proof) but I've also received some other fantastic sounding books the past few weeks. I may have bought myself a copy of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep to make up for the rubbish weather last week.

Next weekend is London Book Shop Crawl, so I'll be trying to do a post on that next Sunday if my arms haven't fallen off from carrying all the books. I'm looking forward to meeting people and having a glorious bookish day out.

Do leave me a link to any reviews you've written for these already as I do like to see others' thoughts after I've read them (and add other links to my reviews).


For Review:

The Map of Bones by Francesca Haig (Harper Voyager)
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)
Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson (Picador)
Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan (Clarion)
Discworld Diary 2016: A Practical Manual for the Modern Witch (Gollancz)
The Butterfly Summer by Harriet Evans (Headline)*

Bought:

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The Well by Catherine Chanter
An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield


*Unsolicited titles

Saturday, 30 January 2016

I, Robot

I, Robot is a collection of interconnected stories exploring the Three Laws of Robotics. Anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction or robotics will have heard of Asimov’s laws and they have continued to be influential over 65 years later. The book is also charming to read.

Having learnt that introductions in many editions of classic novels often contain spoilers, I skipped the introduction here, without realising it’s actually part of the story. Take note! The premise is that a reporter is interviewing robopsychologist Dr Susan Calvin for the Interplanetary Press. Calvin has spent her career at the heart of US Robotics and has plenty of tales to tell.

The first story tells us of Robbie the robot who is a nursemaid for a young girl who loves him, but feelings towards robots are starting to turn. Soon robots are to be banned from Earth, but this tells of time when robots could be trusted with the most precious tasks.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Many of the stories follow Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, two men employed by US Robotics and posted out on remote planets to oversee various models. Working with some of the newer or more experimental robots they start to see where the Three Laws let them down. The stories aren’t necessarily about robots being a danger to us, more that the Three Laws can limit them, or cause bugs.

Yup, there’s one story that felt like Asimov had been working in software development. There’s a new release and there’s something wrong with it. But no one knows what exactly and Powell and Donovan can’t seem to recreate it. It only happens when they’re not looking. This is so very familiar.

In one story we see a politician accused of being a robot in hiding. Calvin is brought in to investigate but should a person comply with the Three Laws, it doesn’t prove them a robot, perhaps they are just a good human being. In fact, it is interesting that the main representative of US Robotics in these stories is the psychologist, putting emphasis on the robots are more than just machines; it explores their behaviour in relation to the Laws and how they may evolve into beings more like us.

It really didn’t feel dated at all. The positronic brain might be an unexplained thing that allows the robots to exist in a time when robots were pure speculation, but they don’t feel too unrealistic now. We might not have humanoid robots wandering our streets, but robots of a kind do have a huge impact on our lives. You can talk to a small computer that you carry round in your pocket after all! The Machines at the end are the closest I’ve seen someone get to the prediction of an interconnected world network in fiction.

If you’ve seen the film with Will Smith, it really isn’t the same story at all although there are elements which made it into the adaptation. A robot with altered Laws hides amongst visually identical robots and a test must be conceived to identify it. Dr Lanning is in both but not really the same character. The idea that humans turned against robots and removed them from the streets is only briefly mentioned in the book, but was more of an undercurrent in the film.

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Book Source: Borrowed from Josh

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Carry On

For those that don’t know what Carry On is, it is Rainbow’s own fan fiction of a fictional series that features in one of her books in which the main character writes fan fiction. Yup, it’s all a bit meta at this point. Carry On isn’t supposed to be the in-world canon of Simon and Baz, instead it follows down the path of all those fan fiction writers who shipped the two main characters.

I should probably start off with full disclosure that I didn’t really like the Simon and Baz bits in Fangirl but I was intrigued to see where they would go in a full length novel. In some ways, it’s all quite clever, bringing together plenty of Chosen One tropes and occasionally poking fun at them but not quite enough. If you hadn’t read Fangirl and picked this up blind, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a Harry Potter clone, but with a slightly older tone. I think that was part of my problem with Fangirl, the fact that it wasn’t just Harry Potter fan fiction to start with.

Carry On also feels like you’ve landed in a series part the way through. By the end, it’s clear this would be a final book if it were actually a real series. Whilst a regular feature of the real thing, the info-dumps of what-happened-previously grated a bit. Fortunately they tapered off and I had more of a chance to get into the story of the present.

Well, how am I supposed to know? There isn't a book, is there? All the Magickal Things that Are Actually True and All the Ones that Are Bollocks, Just Like You Thought.

I did like the relationship between Simon and Baz. Baz is absent for the start of the book so maybe that is why I felt it took me a while to get into the swing of things. I also liked the alternate narratives, we get to see what some of the supporting cast thinks too. Agatha would actually prefer to be in the Normal world and there’s even a glimpse into The Mage’s psyche. Plus there's plenty of cute or funny lines.

I know so many people loved all the homage. If that’s your thing you will love it. Yet at the heart there was a really good story trying to get out. This world isn’t quite so black and white as Harry Potter’s. No one’s clearly evil or plain good, just like the real world, and sometimes good people do bad things. I also thought the characters were more believable as real people and they're a lot more in touch with the modern world.

You can't just wave your wand and repeat what you've heard someone saying down on the street corner; that's a good way to accidentally separate someone from their bollocks.

The magic system reminded me a little of The Invisible Library and the power of words. Spells are woven out of common phrases, things that are spoken more have more power and some of the spells come from song lyrics in the modern day. This magic evolves just as language evolves.

It's a fun read but it didn't rock my world. I'm not sure I would recommend it as a standalone fantasy but it's definitely worth reading if you liked Simon and Baz in Fangirl.

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Also reviewed @ Jess Hearts Books | Bookevin




Book Source: Purchased

Monday, 25 January 2016

All the Birds in the Sky

One day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant. Probably not, though.

I loved this tale of when magic and science collide, full of humour, love and commentary on our modern life. It’s the second book to have a non-humanoid AI that made me cry too.

The story starts with two teenagers, both on the outskirts of school society who become tentative friends. Laurence loves nothing more than spending his life in front of a screen. He built a time machine that can send him two seconds into the future and is now building a supercomputer in his wardrobe but his parents keep sending him to outdoorsy things. So he pays Patricia to lie to his parents that he’s been outdoors.

He had conquered a small piece of time, and they were conquering a small piece of space. They understood, as he did, that this was a down payment.

Patricia loves nature but her parents would rather lock her away in her room. Her sister is possibly evil. One night, after her sister douses her dinner with an excessive amount of spices, Patricia leaves her body and talks to a bird named Dirrp who takes her to the Parliament of Birds. There she discovers she’s a witch and is asked a question she doesn’t answer. Yet years pass, and magic seems to have left her.

Once thing I particularly liked was how these characters do grow up. It wouldn’t have been the same book if it stayed with their childhoods. Their families seem cruel, or at best negligent, but when all is said and done, there was love there. As the characters grow up they can see their childhood with hindsight, just as we all start to see our parents differently with a bit of distance in time and space. The book is told in different parts, each at a different point in their lives, giving more scope to the story.

We don't need better emotional communication from machines. We need people to have more empathy.

When Laurence and Patricia meet again, they are both living in San Francisco. This gives Charlie the chance to incorporate hipsters and start-ups into the mix, giving a zeitgeist feel despite being set in the near future. It also deals with climate change, the awful tragedy of natural disasters and questions whether or not it is inevitable. Magic is a symbol of nature; can science and nature cohabit peacefully?

Of course Patricia is on the side of magic and Laurence science, but their friendship is stronger than that. They might fall out, but they are mysteriously drawn back to each other. They have to make tough decisions and sacrifices as the world falls apart around them. In the end, it would seem that magic and science aren’t all that different after all.

How do you ever know your own emotions are spontaneous and genuine, and not just a programmed set of responses?

I loved the assassin slash guidance counsellor as well. Just a great cast of characters with charm and emotion and a bit of satire on what technology has done to us. I could waffle on forever but I really should leave some of it for you to discover by yourself. It gets a big thumbs up from me. Plus, the cover is gorgeous.

All the Birds in the Sky is published by Titan Books and is available in paperback and ebook editions from 26th January 2016. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review. Charlie Jane Anders is the editor of io9 and this is her debut novel.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World After an Apocalypse

If you survived the apocalypse would you know what to do next? How would you rebuild civilisation? This book aims to put in the hands of the survivors crucial knowledge that will kick-start technological advancement, but also keep them fed and healthy.

I read The Knowledge over the holidays and have told so many people facts from it since, I’d almost forgotten that I hadn’t blogged about. The introduction does speculate a little about different types of apocalypse, but settles on a viral pandemic as our final foe. This would leave survivors the advantage of a fairly intact infrastructure whilst they find their feet as well as little competition for resources.

The book is split into sections dealing with aspects such as agriculture, medicine, power, construction and more advance scientific methods. It’s not just a survival guide but a reminder of how much we take for granted. Josh had recently shown me the TED Talk for the guy who tried to build a toaster from scratch. Just knowing how it works is not enough but you need to know how to mine and extract the base materials required first. This book is very much on that premise, how even simple things will be much more difficult.

The earlier chapters do deal with scavenging and making the most of what’s been left behind. It also points out these things won’t last forever and why the country is a better bet than urban areas in the long term. With easy access to forests and the sea, where I live right now isn’t too bad a location if the worst happens!

Speaking of forests, trees are amazing. Their potential for fuel is not simply just by burning, you can even rig up a car to run on wood gas. Then there’s charcoal, crucial for filtering water and making compounds essential for further technological advancement. There’s creosote (the thing that makes smoked food taste so good as well as being a fine ting to paint your fence with), sticky pitch, acetic acid (think vinegar) and acetone (think nail varnish remover). Plus you can build shelter with it.

I found the agricultural, medical and chemistry bits the most fascinating and accessible, based on my previous knowledge. We’ve already got some sourdough starter and homemade cider in the corner of the room, so we’re ahead in our preparations, at least when it comes to yeast. Some of the engineering bits went a bit over my head. In practical terms, it gives only a brief overview of what you’d need to know, if you have no prior knowledge you would struggle to do all the things in the book.

However it is thought-provoking and full of facts if you like stuffing your head with facts. There are some things that seem easier than I would have expected once they’ve been explained, which can only give us all hope for the apocalypse.

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Book Source: Gift

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Ballroom

She'd heard of it. Since she was small. If you ever did anything stupid: the asylum. For the lunatics. The paupers. They'll send you to Sharston, and you'll never come out.

In an asylum on the Yorkshire moors, a dance is held once a week in a grand ballroom. Men and women kept apart, are allowed this one chance to be normal, to dance and feel the hands of another. Here Ella and John meet. She a poor woman who merely broke a window at the factory where she was once employed. He an Irishman, who has suffered tragedy in a land where he isn’t welcome.

1911 was a time when the asylum wasn’t necessarily the worst option, indeed some of the poorest people actually tried to get committed so they would be fed and have a roof over their heads. Sharston Asylum is loosely based on a real Yorkshire asylum with a ballroom. It’s self-sufficient with the patients contributing to the work and they even have their own farm. Perhaps it seems like a form of slavery, but not all the characters are portrayed as wanting to leave.

Things do start to change though, particularly when a young doctor, with his sights set on advancing his career, starts to think about new ways of doing things. First he strongly believes that segregation and music therapy, along with a once a week dance for those with good behaviour, is all people need. It all seems kind of pleasant. He is interested in eugenics but does not believe the drastic measure of sterilisation is necessary.

At the time, with the teachings of Charles Darwin fresh in their minds, people were beginning to believe madness and being poor were hereditary. Whilst some forms of mental illness have since been found to have some genetic causes, being poor definitely isn’t. However it is so difficult to escape one’s circumstances, so you can see how they came to this conclusion. Most people born poor would have stayed poor. And often the poor had big families too, hence increasing the problem.

Eugenics has become something strongly associated with Nazi Germany however there were plenty of believers in the United Kingdom and America. In America, there were even some cases of forced sterilisation in mental institutions, I’m not sure if it ever went that far here. This story doesn’t really go as far as exploring the consequences of forced sterilisation, it is more of an ominous threat to patients’ human rights.

Given the current climate around immigration, it’s quite fascinating to read about the prejudice towards the Irish at the turn of the century (do we still say that now we’ve changed century?). Following the Great Famine caused by potato blight there was a mass exodus from Ireland as people sought work, and food, abroad. They were treated as second class citizens, and as we see here, were considered genetically inferior to the English. Now, no one bats an eyelid if someone is Irish.

Unlike music, excessive reading has been shown to be dangerous for the female mind.

Asylums and eugenics are something I’ve read a fair bit about over the years, so I the doctor’s eventual decision seemed inevitable from quite early on. He is wrestling with his own demons and he could have done with some nice quiet, relaxation time himself. There really isn’t a lot of difference between the staff and the patients. As the cover says, who gets to decide who is mad? It seems to be determined by class, power and money.

The Ballroom is published by Transworld and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 11th February 2016. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Revival: You're Among Friends

Revival is a "rural noir" comic series by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton (with additional illustrations by Mark Englert). Volume one was included in one of the Image Comics Humble Bundles that I've bought over the years and, with an intention to read more graphic novels this year, I thought that would be a good starting point.

This is an interesting take on the zombie genre; what if people came back from the dead and they were still the people they were before? Well, mostly the same, as the story continues we see that some people are reacting differently.

What I really liked about this was the small town America setting, where everyone knows everyone and there are plenty of different personal stories. This volume included issues #1-5 and is mostly just introducing the players so some might find it a little slow, but I liked the effort to make the characters have a bit more depth, and things they were worried about that had nothing to do with the dead coming back to life.

The main character is Officer Dana Cypress, a female cop in Wausau, Wisconsin, forever seeking her father's approval (which is why she joined the force) and has been growing distant from her sister. But her sister's more involved in this weird occurance than Dana would expect. The representative from the CDC (or equivalent) is Muslim doing non-stereotypical Muslim things, like investigating, hoorah. There's also a nutjob exorcist roaming around too, the perfect chance for him to ply his trade.

I'll definitely give the next volume a try. There's some intriguing threads cropping up. I also really like Image's trend (well from the comics I've read so far) of having a different artist to do full page illustrations for the start/end of chapters.


I'll leave you with a few more images to whet your appetite...


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Book Source: Purchased

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Previously, on Bournemouth Book Club...

I've been a bit of a moany pants about book group reads lately, generally we've not been reading books I've been that excited by. Perhaps I've been judging them before I even get going but honestly, these two books weren't great hits with the group either.

The Children Act is a book of two parts. I found the medical and family law parts fascinating; how far can the law go in intervening in someone’s life? When does a child have the right to decide what happens to them and so they have the right to let themselves die?

It’s sadly let down by the domestic side. We have this amazingly successful woman, who starts to wonder if she’s failed as a woman because she never had children. Reading that made me so angry. I think she had definitely won at being a woman.

The opening scene sees her husband request an open marriage, or at least permission to have an affair. It’s been seven weeks since they last had sex so that seems to justify it for him. On one hand, I can see it’s frustrating for him that she’s not been herself, more withdrawn from usual, and she won’t talk about it, but the way he behaves was a bit of a leap. He asks to talk about what’s troubling her after asking for the affair. Fiona has been struggling with some of the decisions she’s made and I can only imagine the dampening affect her job would have on her sex life.

Where the story goes in relation to Fiona and Adam a little uncomfortable. Perhaps Fiona was supposed to be having a midlife crisis as well as her husband, but it seemed irresponsible for someone of such high standing. A judge is nothing without their good judgement after all.

Then there was I Let You Go, another of those domestic thrillers and one that I very nearly didn't read. I was swayed by some of my Goodreads friends' reviews but sadly I didn't feel the same. The first third of the story was a bit tedious. I know that most police procedurals are quite unrealistic in the speed that things get done, so full marks for portraying an investigation closer to life. From the police side, very little happens over a year.

The story starts with a hit and run accident in Bristol, in which a young boy is killed. There's very little for the police to go on but they throw all they've got into the investigation. No one can fathom the kind of person who would flee the scene without helping.

In the meantime, Jenna has fled to a remote cottage in Wales, where somehow she starts a successful business selling photos of words she writes in the sand. It's bit of a pet peeve how people in books effortlessly manage to make a living doing something fun that realistically wouldn't pay well, unless you got famous for it. In her defense, her savings are mentioned on a few occasions but it also is made to seem like she's doing OK.

So at the point I was thinking about quitting and going to book group with my tail between my legs, things start to get interesting. Actually when Jenna's narration starts, I assumed she was what is revealed at this point anyway. So I did feel a bit confused. It goes to so much effort trying to lead the reader astray that it didn't quite work.

Yet I was pulled in a lot more by this point and I do think the aspect around domestic abuse was done well. We see the viewpoint of the abuser instead of the abused, how they try to justify things. The slow build up from things that could be overlooked to the unforgivable.

Things got a bit ridiculous at the end on a couple of counts. I didn't think the police personal lives side was necessary however I get the feeling it could be setting up for a series with the same characters. I'm not sure I liked them enough to want to read more about them though.

So what are we reading next? Well I've managed to sneak one of my nominations in; Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta is April's read. Next month we're reading another book with a watery theme, The Well by Catherine Chanter which is set in a drought ridden near-future and then for March we're reading A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.

If you're interested in coming along to Bournemouth Book Club you can find more details on our Facebook group.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Salt to the Sea

Germany was finally telling people what they should have said months ago. Run for your lives.

Salt to the Sea follows a group of characters in the harsh winter of 1945, travelling across what was once Prussia in order to secure passage on boats which will take them to safer lands. In the group there are Germans, a Lithuanian and a Polish girl attempting to hide more than just her nationality. Among the Germans is a young man, who would have been expected to be on the front, fighting for his country, but instead he carries papers containing a very important mission. The old shoemaker can read people by their shoes, and he’s sure the young German is hiding something.

Away from the group there is also the viewpoint of a soldier already positioned on the Wilhelm Gustloff. I did wonder if Alfred was just writing his letters in his head. He has an inflated sense of self-importance and there’s a sense that Hannelore doesn’t return his affections. Add to that writing letters in dangerous situations doesn’t quite add up. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character but there’s still a feeling that the war made him this way.

Florian and Alfred are contrasting characters; one who knows what those in charge are doing is wrong, and one who is completely behind Hitler. The story shows the horrors of war not only through the almost casual loss of life seen again and again, but also through Emilia’s story. And what our narrators share in common is the awful truth that so many children were separated from their families, left to grow up far too young and fend for themselves.

The white snow covered the dark truth. Pressed white linen over a scarred table, a crisp clean sheet over a stained mattress.

The loss of the Wilhelm Gustloff is one of the largest maritime tragedies in history. We hear so much about the Titanic but so many more lives were lost, and at the hands of humans rather than by accident. And many of those of board were children. I am a bit disappointed that the marketing is so heavily focused on the fate of the ship, as it did mean I was waiting for the part on the ship to happen for most of the book. It is much more centred on their journey to get to the ship, the desperation to get on board and, of course, what brought them to this place and time.

The voices could have been more distinct. I always knew when Alfred was narrating but the others tended to merge together a little, and I had to check who was narrating on several occasions. The narrator is listed at the top of each chapter, but when I’m absorbed in the story, I don’t always read these.

What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?

The story also incorporates one of the mysteries of WWII; the Amber Room. It was a lavishly decorated chamber within a Russian palace, heavy with gold and amber. It was also high on the list of Hitler’s most wanted art acquisitions and went missing during the war. Some suggest it could have been on the Wilhelm Gustloff…

Salt to the Sea is published by Puffin and will be available in paperback and ebook editions from 4th February 2016. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

13 Minutes

Natasha Howland had been dead for 13 minutes when she’s resuscitated. She can’t remember how she ended up in the icy river. She’s certain it wasn’t a suicide attempt and she doesn’t think it was an accident. But who would want to hurt her, the most popular girl in school?

Female friendships can be complicated, and there’s a definite love/hate dynamic in 13 Minutes. Jealousies, manipulation, suspicions, loyalty and love, this has it all. They are all that that point in their lives where things are changing; friendships don’t last forever, people do grow apart or break apart, and sometimes it’s just better to leave it. Yet there is still that desire to belong, no one wants to be that kid after all.

None of the characters are perfect. Becca is just as capable of being mean as the mean girls, or the Barbies as she likes to call them. Even when Hannah is supposedly her best friend, she’s still pretty disparaging about her, wishing she had more backbone or wasn’t such a goody two shoes. The girls drink, smoke, do drugs and have sex. They lie to their parents and sneak out. They lie to each other.

The main narrative is third person, mostly following Becca. However there are also Tasha’s journal entries, notes from the police investigation, text message conversations and newspaper reports. I liked how there were a number of papers used for each event, showing how different the slant can be, from pure facts to sensationalism. The use of narrative styles is crucial to how the whole thing plays out. We put so much trust upon communications that we can’t verify.

There was some really interesting things to be said regarding teenagers’ perspective on adults, that they feel there is a huge gap between them. School may be different now to when their parents went, but every generation thinks their own world is unique and how could adults possibly understand anything. Yet as things become clearer to Becca, you also see her responding to adults differently, seeing them through new eyes.

There was a point where it was all wrapping up and I was nowhere near the end. And then this dawning realisation creeps up. It’s so good. And it's no coincidence that the school play is The Crucible. I think I was expecting something more supernatural based on Sarah’s previous books and the imprint. There’s a hint at something other, but you could read it either way really. It’s a very strong contemporary, young adult thriller without it.

13 Minutes is published by Gollancz and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 18th February 2016. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.