Book Review: The View from the Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors that can make any other writer can blanch when comparing their own work with his. From novels and comic books, to even writing screenplay adaptations, he is a highly accomplished author and it would be no surprise if even more of his work was adapted into TV and film in the coming year – I’m already counting the days until American Gods premieres.

I’m breaking into a sweat even thinking about writing a review of of anything Gaiman has written – let alone a book collecting amongst other things his own reviews of other people’s work.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a typical Gaiman creation in that there’s a lot more to it than is evident on a quick peruse. This is one of those collections that you won’t necessarily want to read from from to back in one sitting, and nor do you need to given the varied content broken up into discreet sections. There are reviews of movies, discussions on relationships with other authors and artists, thoughts on science fiction and comics. For mine, the first section is one of the best: thoughts on the importance of libraries, bookshops and Halloween to name three topics. That said, Gaiman’s ability to engage works equally as well in the non-fiction realm and I haven’t been tempted to skip chapters on topics of little interest.

If you’re after a book of essays that are written with skill and passion, then definitely give The View From The Cheap Seats a go. If you’re looking for wild fantasy you won’t find it, but in its place you’ll fine something equally as satisfying.

 

Review: The Cinder Spires – The Aeronaut’s Windlass

jim-butcher-aeronauts-windlass-cover-530x800Jim Butcher does fantasy and does it very well. In The Aeronaut’s Cutlass, Butcher shows how well. In the fantasy world he sets up, the population live in a number of spires which are accessed through airships.

Once this is set up, the action starts, as an attack is launched between two spires, and the pace barely slows from there.  In a fantasy novel, the setting is the major thing. The steampunk setting is very well realised with the information dumps and techncal details kept to a bare minimum. The canvas for the story is  easy to picture thanks to Butcher’s descriptions. What I found interesting was that I saw all this in an Anime setting, which is not something I usually do.

Caught up in all the action are spire guards, half crazed magicians, intelligent cats, and a disgraced air ship captain. The characters that we meet are all so very confident of themselves and of those around them, which results in not much personality depth. However, given the fun that this book is to read, it can be quickly forgiven. This is the first book of a series and sets the tone and the world very well. With the high adventure and enjoyable characters, this novel would not be out of place sitting next to your David Eddings.

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

us-uprooted-e1433948641794When a novel starts with a dragon taking a girl, you may begin to suspect that you are about to slip into a few hundred pages of cliches .

In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, you can feel at times that this is the case. Novik draws on Eastern European mythology for the framework of this story, and this was helped by the narration on the audio book by Julia Emelin’s accent. Given how many tropes are floating through the book – village girl plucked from mundane life, powerful wizards,  an ancient evil that must be defeated – it is very easy to see where this book is going to go.

Don’t let this dissuade you though. By not having to spend as much time on the story, Novik is able to spend more time creating a unique world , which becomes very vivid. Given the story, there are milestones that are expected to be reached, and the reader is guided to each as the main character grows from the simple village girl to where she’s gotten to by the end of the novel. Along the way, characters are introduced and developed with the care that is required for you to really feel for them. This is where Novik is at her best. Despite feeling that this story is familiar, I found myself caring for these people, and any interruption to the audio presentation was seen as annoying .

Overall, for those who enjoy a rip snorting fantasy that’s light on the politics but has a  coherent mythology, then this one’s for you. And it’s contained in a rarity for the genre – a single book.

Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

aurora-ksrKim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel tells the story of a multi-generational voyage to Tau Ceti, and what happens when the craft gets there. Robinson’s novel is a well researched piece of fiction and he manages to do this whilst avoiding esoteric information dumps.

We follow the life of Freya, in the beginning a teenage girl on the craft, as she experiences attempts to colonise, then maturing into a woman as the events reach their climax. The story is bookended by an omniscent voice, but  the main part of the novel is narrated by the ship’s Artificial Intelligence. This is where it can sometimes get a little odd, as there is the occasional discourse on the varying aspects of language, story telling, and logic. These ponderings by the AI have the potential to bring the story to a standstill, but Robinson manages to keep them short and easily understood.

As the story progresses, we not only follow Freya growing up, but the narrator also grows with the course of the novel. I listened to the audio version, which was narrated by Ali Ahn. She does a good job of pacing the spoken word – it is young males that are her only challenge, with the three that Freya interacts with all sounding the same to me.

The final part of the novel was not an ending that felt satisfactory. If it had ended in the previous section, it would have finished on a bit of a downer, and yet an optimistic note with all journeys completed .

Overall, if you enjoy good character driven science fiction that will make you think, I would recommend it.

Review: Skin Game

skingame_lgWhen a novel is the fifteeth in a series, there is one thing you can bank on: the author is comfortable with the setting. In Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, he is sitting in the ezy chair, kicking back with a beer and watching the game on television.

The world of the book will be familiar to any readers of urban fantasy. Creatures of myths roam the modern city street, in this case Chicago. In the middle of it all is a human who is tormented in some way, usually by circumstance. They are chosen, or are a human/ mythical half breed. For Harry Dresden, the torment comes from being the “The Winter Knight”, which is a power to be controlled. Further torment comes from being manipulated by the various creatures around him. Demons, Angels, and Fairies from various cultures all combine to make for an interesting world, and Dresden is certainly one of the more interesting characters in the field. His world-weary cynicism adds a hardness that is often lacking in this genre.

Harry is co-opted by Queen Mab to help with a break in to Hades, so you know this is not going to end well for all those involved. Along the way, Harry becomes a likeable character, with his full geek showing. Anyone willing to make a reference to 1979’s “The Black Hole” is definetly an out of the closet geek. Being so far into the series, it would be possible to create a book that anyone new to the series would not be able to follow. However, Butcher is able to put in background information as needed, without slowing the pacing. This is my first Dresden file and I was able to keep tabs of what was going on.

I felt the final reveal was a bit out of left field. This is more to do with the betrayal to the reader. If you are going to go with the first person narrative throughout a book but not reveal everything that you do, then that’s what happens. While Harry may go through the story playing characters and twisting the truth, at the end of the experience the person holding the book is the one that he has to trust with everything.

That said, I did find Skin Game an enjoyable, easy read. Jim Butcher is certainly one author I will read if he crosses my path again.

Review: Three Body Problem

three-body-problemIn the past my exposure to Chinese culture has come mainly from sauce jars and movies, so it was with some interest that I approached Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem. It’s the first in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy and was originally published in 2008, with this English translation published in 2014 by Tor Books.

The story is that of a researcher approached by a secret military group to discover why scientists have recently started committing suicide. His investigation has him playing a computer game that opens the way to other events.  I felt the book was saying that while Chinese society has solved many social problems, it still seems to have some issues with The Cultural Revolution. The novel deftly moves between the near future and the Revolution as the truth is slowly revealed.

Characters do seem to be a little shallow, but this may have been the result of the audio presentation by Luke Daniels. The hapless scientist is presented with a light voice, while the world weary police officer sounds almost New York tired – imagine Sargent Bullock from the 1990s Batman animated series.

This is not to say that the story is not engaging. It moves along at a nice pace, with a story of science fiction that does grab the attention. The translation is well done, and doesn’t feel clunky – you can feel the spirit of the words, not just the translations of the phrases. More importantly, the science in the book is explained.  I was not thrown immediately into the world of Quantum Theory, I was bought in through a three body collision, nanotechnology, and  microwave astronomy. So the ideas behind quantum theories and some of the other esoteric science did not come as a surprise that had to be understood beforehand. In this style of novel, it  can be easy for the science to be overwhelming, but it isn’t in this case here.

Given that this is an audio book of a translation, there are many places where this could be a dry, introductry novel with a lecturing tone. Instead, I found it to to be enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking. Hell, I wish that the next volume would get here already. For fans of aliens and laser guns science fiction, this is one to probably avoid. However, readers of Asimov, Reynolds or Baxter will find their reading time won’t be wasted.

Review: The Dark Between The Stars

The_Dark_Between_the_Stars__Saga_of_Shadows___Kevin_J__Anderson__9780765332998__Amazon_com__BooksAny fan of the modern space opera would have come across the name of Kevin J. Anderson. Having written novels for the expanded universe of Star Wars, and helping Brian Herbert flesh out the Dune saga, Anderson has developed his chops in the field. The novel The Dark Between the Stars shows that he has paid clear attention as to how to operate in this genre.

This novel is the first of the Shadows of the Seven Suns trilogy,which in turn is a sequel to the seven book cycle The Saga of the Seven suns, which I have not read. This first novel introduces characters, old and new, and handles back story without large info dumps. Showing us the humans, the gypsy clans called Roamers, the alien Ildrians and the tree worshipers on Thorac,  there are a lot of characters to get through. To make this easier, Anderson has each chapter dedicated to an individual character. When reading a chapter with the Ildrians, I did tend to wonder if his apostrophe key was faded from the constant use.

With this chapter structure, Anderson is able to move around the narrative without it getting bogged down. In fact, for an opening salvo in a trilogy it does start off at a fair pace. Although with an ancient enemy returning to the galaxy, shooting to an infidelity did tend to make me briefly wonder what it was all about. .

Once the foe is revealed, the remaining pieces are bought together very well. Characters are well developed, and Anderson is able to show us how much more important narrative is to character survival. Be warned, having a number of chapters named after you is not a sign that you will see the end of the book.

Overall, a well paced book, for fans of grand space opera, from a writer who has worked with some of the most respected franchises in the field.

Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

ancillary-sword-anne-leckie

When the first novel of a trilogy wins the Hugo and Nebula awards, one tends to expect big things in the follow up. It was with this assumption that I made my way to Ancillary Sword, the second of the Imperial Radch Trilogy from Ann Leckie. The first of the books, Ancillary Justice was a space opera that I found exciting, with the story unfolding from the point of view of an AI on a craft getting input from reanimated bodies, called Ancilliaries. It ended with a high point that promised so much more.

The version of Ancillary Sword that I “read” was actually the audio version, read by Adjoa Andoh. The presentation was capable enough without being obtrusive, but with enough emotion to be Breq, the main character in the novel. Breq is all that remains of the ship from the first novel, and the AI now has to find its way through the universe without all the accoutrements that a ship size AI can expect.

Knowing that a civil war will soon be occurring, Breq does not do what you would expect. Instead there is moral umbrage on local issues and side tracking from the major concerns of the trilogy.

Leckie has continued with the AI’s misunderstanding of gender, a device that is both enduring and a little limiting. With everyone a she, it can make it difficult to really get a handle on what is going on. Breq still maintains her ship ability to evesdrop on Ancilliaries, which allows for the single person narative to switch to scenes where the charater is not actually present. In the audio version this requires particularly close listening, as it is easy to forget where you are. My biggest problem is that I found it distracting, in that we would go from a single person’s experience of a scene, to a scene where our main character was not even available. It made me wonder why not being a ship was a tragedy when you still possess all the abilities you had before the ship was destroyed.

The action in this novel is a little slower, but this is not an action space opera. It is a ‘clean up the local issues, play local politics, throw military muscle around’ space opera, so don’t expect something that moves at a fast pace. When it does move, Leckie is able to move it along with a touch of the old Deus Ex Machina.

Overall Ancillary Sword isn’t a complete waste of reading time. The original premise of the first book is carried through, although the revelations at the end of the first are quickly ignored. Outside of those who have read the first in the series, I would recommend this to those who are looking for a new voice in science fiction. In this sophomore effort, Anne Leckie shows us that although she still has some things to learn, she will be an imagination to keep an eye out in the future.

Review: The Ellis Laws

ellis-lawsThere’s no shortage of stereotypes surrounding older people. A key one revolves around the idea that those over say, fifty, get very set in their ways and that this worsens with the passing of the remaining decades. Add to that the related claim that most old blokes turn into crusty old grumps who see little good about the future, and you have a pretty potent image of what Bob Ellis and The Ellis Laws might be about.

The trouble is, and perhaps this is because I’m the wrong side of forty myself, The Ellis Laws is probably one of the most cogent, incisive looks at modern society that I’ve read. Whether it’s the role of CEOs or the lack of sleep most of us suffer from there’s some very well argued positions that are very difficult to refute – at least from my male, over-40 viewpoint anyway. Ellis relishes the role of observer and it stands him in good stead throughout – there’s less overstatement than I expected and also an avoidance of glorifying the past too overtly. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Ellis puts forward an upbeat view, but he at least provides some building blocks on which he believes some positive changes could happen.

As the cover blurb puts so well, this is a small book that puts forward the “laws of life we always knew, but have not before now seen put in words”. Yes it’s meant to be irreverent, but that is only one aspect. There are some concepts discussed that force some pretty deep introspection, and that for me was the biggest reward this work generated.

You can buy the book for yourself here for the princely sum of $9.99. It’s ten dollars extremely well spent, and one of the few books this year that I’ll be handing on to others recommending they have a read also.

For transparency: I’m a big fan of Bob Ellis’ published works and I have previously written a review of his stage adaptation of Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (which I’ve also reviewed). After that review Mr Ellis kindly organised a lunch with myself and Bob Carr as a thank you. It was one of the most illuminating lunches of my sheltered life, but I don’t feel indebted to either Bob in any way and hope it hasn’t influenced this review in any way.

Book Review: Total Engagement

Byron Reeves is a Stanford University Professor and Co-Director of the Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute. J. Leighton Read is a serial entrepreneur and CEO with an interest in the psychological aspects of gaming.

The premise of the book is the potential for games to become central in the workplace. It sounds a far-fetched premise initially, but that’s the power of the discussion put forward by the authors: they provide cogent, well-informed examples of how gaming within business could work. The focus is primarily MMOs, for a number of reasons, including:

1. They contain “the most counterstereotypical roster of players”, hence being the most worthwhile population from which to apply findings.

2. MMO players tend to have a higher level of engagement with their game and spend on average much more time per week than a solo gamer.

3. The dynamics of raids, quests etc tend to provide situations where teamwork and leadership can come to the fore.

After establishing its premise, the book goes on to provide some fascinating examples of work problems a gaming framework could solve, as well as some fairly detailed discussion around virtual teams, virtual leadership, virtual money and the link between play and work. There’s a useful summary at the end and a handful of tactics to actually start implementing some of the examples given. As the authors themselves say, one of the best tactics for any business is to harness the knowledge of the gamers in its midst.

Overall, this is a very engaging read with realistic, well thought out examples. For anyone interested in the applicability of virtual environments to the workplace, it’s a must-read. For the dedicated gamer who also happens to work for a large organisation, there’s also plenty of information to get you thinking about advocating for change.

The final world goes to one of the authors. Here’s a presentation from Byron Reeves on the topic of the book:

Byron Reeves – fbFund REV, 7/31/09 – Part 1 of 2 (Version 2), “Work Sucks – Games are great” from fbFund REV on Vimeo.

You can buy Total Engagement from our own bookshop, Amazon direct or a local online bookshop like Dymocks.

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