Category Archives: Books

Quote of the day: And Another Thing

The Resorts of Han Wavel were so obscenely luxurious that it was said a Breqindan male would sell his mother for a night in the Sandcastle Hotel’s infamous vibro-suite, This is not as shocking as it sounds as parents are accepted currency on Brequinda and a nicely moisturized septuagenarian with a good set of teeth can be traded for a mid-range family moto-carriage.

Eoin Colfer

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The Horror of Love

This is sick, twisted and superb.

Graphic designer and illustrator, Butcher Billy has come up with a series of book covers that re-imagines famous long songs as Stephen King novels.

The concept is to look at the dark side of love through the lenses of pop culture, bringing twisted aspects of his classic stories to play with the original meanings of the songs – that can be completely subverted or strangely emphasized, while paying tribute to the vintage design of the original book covers.

Click on through to his Behance page to see the full set.

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Critical Mass

Critical Mass Following on from Thursday, I was reminded of the last book I read on the subject of economics. That said, Critical Mass by Philip Ball goes beyond just economics and takes in a whole range of social sciences and delves into why these areas of study so often get things wrong.

Ball, a physicist by training and a former editor for Nature, makes the case that these subjects should focus on the behaviour of systems, rather than trying to extrapolate from individual behaviour as is so often the case. He starts by laying the groundwork and then works through a series of examples in which his approach has been successfully used.

It’s been a fair few years since I read this (my copy has a printing date of 2007) but the core point – that people are random and unpredictable individually, but highly predictable in groups – is one that has stayed with me and still appears to hold true.

I’d recommend it and I’m highly tempted to go back and read it again.

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2014 in books

I noticed today that Goodreads has a nifty feature that allows you to list the books you read in 2014 and I wondered if I could find some way of exporting it onto here. The answer, unless I am missing something obvious, is not easily.

But it’s mildly interesting to look back at what I read, so here is the list. The blockquoted bits are the synopsis, as published on Goodreads. The bits below are my own thoughts, if I have any.

Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Seal of the Worm The Empire stands victorious over its enemies at last. With her chief rival cast into the abyss, Empress Seda now faces the truth of what she has cost the world in order to win the war. The Seal has been shattered, and the Worm stirs towards the light for the first time in a thousand years. Already it is striking at the surface, voraciously consuming everything its questing tendrils touch. Faced with this threat, Seda knows that only the most extreme of solutions can lock the Worm back in the dark once again. But if she will go to such appalling lengths to save the world from the Worm, then who will save the world from her? The last book in the epic critically acclaimed Shadows of the Apt series.

This has been a superb climax to a superb series. There is so much that it’s difficult to talk about this novel without giving away huge spoilers for previous books in the series.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has done a spectacular job of reimagining the fantasy genre and taking it in a wholly new direction. I shall certainly be looking out for what he does next.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

This book melted my brain. On the face of it, this looks like a reasonably straightforward story of betrayal and revenge but there is so much packed into the plot that it really does push you to think about a whole range of issues – the largest and most obvious being the question of identity and what makes us who we are.

It does take a bit of effort to fully appreciate everything that is going on, but it’s effort that is well rewarded.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.

In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.

Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives—and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Thinking, Fast and Slow will transform the way you think about thinking.

This is a fascinating look at the mental shortcuts we take and the way in which we frequently allow these shortcuts to mislead us. The first few chapters felt, to me, to be covering territory I already knew but the author keeps on diving deeper and deeper into how our cogntive functions actually work.

The results are not always edifying, but the journey is riveting.

Why Does E=mc²? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeffrey R. Forshaw

Why Does E=mc²? The most accessible, entertaining, and enlightening explanation of the best-known physics equation in the world, as rendered by two of today’s leading scientists.

Professor Brian Cox and Professor Jeff Forshaw go on a journey to the frontier of 21st century science to consider the real meaning behind the iconic sequence of symbols that make up Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2. Breaking down the symbols themselves, they pose a series of questions: What is energy? What is mass? What has the speed of light got to do with energy and mass? In answering these questions, they take us to the site of one of the largest scientific experiments ever conducted. Lying beneath the city of Geneva, straddling the Franco-Swiss boarder, is a 27 km particle accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider. Using this gigantic machine—which can recreate conditions in the early Universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang—Cox and Forshaw will describe the current theory behind the origin of mass.

Alongside questions of energy and mass, they will consider the third, and perhaps, most intriguing element of the equation: ‘c’ – or the speed of light. Why is it that the speed of light is the exchange rate? Answering this question is at the heart of the investigation as the authors demonstrate how, in order to truly understand why E=mc2, we first must understand why we must move forward in time and not backwards and how objects in our 3-dimensional world actually move in 4-dimensional space-time. In other words, how the very fabric of our world is constructed. A collaboration between two of the youngest professors in the UK, Why Does E=mc2? promises to be one of the most exciting and accessible explanations of the theory of relativity in recent years.

A fascinating and clearly written review of Einstein’s theories of relativity and what they mean. It’s so straightforward that even I could understand it.

Railsea by China Miéville

Railsea On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt.

The giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory are extraordinary. But no matter how spectacular it is, travelling the endless rails of the railsea, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life. Even if his philosophy-seeking captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing – ever since it took her arm all those years ago.

When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But the impossible salvage Sham finds in the derelict leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides: by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers.

And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Although I have been seeing praise for China Miéville for some time, this is the first of his novels that I have read. It took me a bit of time to get used to hi0s writing style, but once I did, Railsea turned out to be a hugely fun romp of a story. There aren’t any real surprises in the plot, but what is there is all handled exceptionally well.

From Aberystwyth with Love by Malcolm Pryce

From Aberystwyth with Love It is a sweltering August in Aberystwyth. A man wearing a Soviet museum curator’s uniform walks into Louie Knight’s office and spins a wild and impossible tale of love, death, madness and betrayal. Sure, Louie had heard about Hughesovka, the legendary replica of Aberystwyth built in the Ukraine by some crazy nineteenth-century czar.

Transition by Iain Banks

Transition There is a world that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern: an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?

Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an un-killable assassin who journeys between the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side; and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital ward, in hiding from a dirty past.

There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter.

Iain Banks wrote some exceptional literary fiction. Iain M. Banks wrote some exceptional science fiction. I didn’t pay enough attention to the missing M in the author’s name when I picked up this novel.

Transition isn’t a bad novel but it does feel like the sort of novel that emerges when an author veers into a genre they don’t fully appreciate.

Iain M. Banks would have written a much better novel.

The Call of Kerberos by Jonathan Oliver

The Call of Kerberos Twilight, a world overshadowed by a vast gas giant, bathing the earth in its otherworldly glow. A world of magic and warriors, zealots and monsters. It is here that the human race cling to a small peninsula, ignorant of what lies beyond the World’s Ridge mountains. But there are those amongst this fledgling race with truly extraordinary powers, heroes who would delve deep into the mysteries of the past and bring new light to Twilight. Twilight of Kerberos is a sword and sorcery series, following the adventures of a group of characters with unique talents. The world changes for Silus – a simple fisherman from Nurn – when a man on the run from the Final Faith tries to persuade him on an extraordinary voyage. Then an ancient evil bursts from the sea and tries to claim Silus as one of their own. To discover the truth about his legacy Silus must take to the forbidding Twilight seas. There, the truth will forever change his world and threaten existence
itself!

I’m in two minds about this book. I do quite like the idea of multiple authors playing in a shared world, but this is not the strongest entry in the series so far. The writing is good enough to keep me with the story up to the end, but I really wasn’t buying into the premise – and I think this may turn out to be a problem with the series as a whole.

Coyote by Allen Steele

Coyote The national bestselling story of Earth’s first interstellar colonists-and the mysterious planet that becomes their home.

Allen Steele has thrown a lot of ideas into Coyote, but never really stopped to develop any of them. The end result is both superficial and disjointed.

This, I realise, is quite a damning criticism of a hard-sf novel in itself. But the problem is compounded by the characters – they are one-dimensional, often inconsistent and uniformly uninteresting. I realy couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to any of them.

I had heard many good things about Coyote before I read it but the book has proved to be a disappointment. It wasn’t bad enough to abandon, but I did come close several times.

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Old Man’s War

Old Man's War e-book Here’s a bit of a confession. Although I have been aware of John Scalzi, the author, for several years and, although his reputation suggests that I would enjoy his output, I have never found the time to actually read any of his novels. Until now.

I picked up Old Man’s War as part of last year’s Humble E-Book Bundle and finally got around to opening it earlier this month. It really is a cracking read. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce–and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Yep. It’s military science fiction in which the elderly take on the bug-eyed monsters. If you think Heinlein with a better sense of humour and without he preachiness you won’t be far wrong.

Old Man’s War is not a classic, but Scalzi knows his tropes and plays with them well. The result is very readable and a great piece of pulpy fun with a few thoughtful moments that will stay with you.

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Quote of the Day: A big bright bold boisterous light

But in his science fiction he achieved something more: something, I think, that the genre rarely manages to do. He was intensely political, and he infused his science fiction with a conviction that a future was possible in which people could live better — he brought to the task an an angry, compassionate, humane voice that single-handedly drowned out the privileged nerd chorus of the technocrat/libertarian fringe and in doing so managed to write a far-future space operatic universe that sane human beings would actually want to live in (if only it existed).

– Charlie Stross on Iain Banks, who died on Sunday.

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