Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Reads of 2013

The time has come to look back at the year that was. 2013 was a pretty good year as far as reading went, although near the end I struggled with a severe case of reviewer's block (it's like writer's block just entirely different). I took notes while reading, so hopefully once it passes I can get some reviews up, even if they are just quick thoughts on each book.

I managed to read 67 books (31,500 pages) in total, which is pretty good. Not as great as my personal best of 122 books a year, but after the great reading slump of 2012 where I managed only 40 I'm pretty happy with 67. My goal was 50 books and I easily surpassed that. I'd count that as a huge success.

Selecting my top reads of 2013 is tough. I had so many books I wanted to read and just didn't get to. Most of them were 2013 releases, so I really don't feel well-read enough to crown the top books of 2013. Instead I'll highlight 3 of the most memorable books amongst the 2013 releases I did manage to read.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

If I was forced to pick the best book I read this year then The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes would be at the top of the list.  It’s a brilliant mix between a thriller and horror novel with a dash of time travel thrown in. The brutal depiction of violence and creepy glimpse into the mind of a serial killer hits you where it hurts. The ending is mind-boggling in its implications and the story will haunt you for days afterward. Heck, I still find myself speculating on how the House works...

The Lowest Heaven edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

Short stories often get overlooked in the hunt for that next big science fiction novel, which is a huge pity since science fiction in short form often has the most profound impact. The Lowest Heaven is a stunning anthology of astronomy themed SF short stories that span the entire spectrum of the genre and brings together a formidable line-up of authors. It's also a thing of beauty with a gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover and carefully selected pictures and illustrations tied to each story.  If you read only one SF anthology, make it this one.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

The Shining got me hooked on Stephen King's work. Since I read it for the first time, almost 12 years ago, Danny has haunted my imagination. I've always wondered what happened to that little boy after he survived such unspeakable horrors. What kind of man would he turn out to be? With Doctor Sleep I finally got to discover the answers to those questions and it was well worth the wait. While it doesn't have the same sense of claustrophobic terror The Shining had Doctor Sleep is a very fitting continuation of Danny's story. The best part is that Danny finally finds redemption, making peace with himself and his past. I couldn't ask for a better ending.

With that out of the way it's time for some stats.

This was the first year I've bought more ebooks than physical books. In total I bought 85 ebooks (135 if you count omnibus and collected editions as separate titles) and only 19 physical books. This is mostly due to some insane ebook deals from Kobo that were far too good to resist.

In total I read 67 books, 41 were paperbacks, 21 ebooks and 5 in hardcover. The split between genres were quite similar for science fiction (37%) and fantasy (39%) with a dash of horror (16%) and a bit of thrillers (5%) thrown in.

So that's 2013 all wrapped up. All that's left is to wish you all a Happy New Year! Let's hope 2014 brings many more splendid books.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Amazon or Kobo?

I'm struggling with reviewer's block. An extremely severe case. My best efforts at writing any new reviews come down to me scribbling "Is good" in crayon over my notes, and I can barely even manage that. So I'm taking a bit of a break, playing with new toys (I just got a Kobo Glo) and buying all the books.

The arrival of the Kobo Glo sparked an idea. I've compared Kobo and Amazon's ebook prices in the past, but that was based on a random sample of ebooks and might not have been all that indicative of general usage, especially since it didn't take Kobo's discount coupons into account. Armed with the list of 78 ebooks I've purchased during the year from Kobo (excluding those not available on both platforms) I've decided to revisit that comparison.

The list of ebooks would be too long to repeat here so I'm just going to post the totals from each retailer and the total of my actual purchases using Kobo's discount coupons. Amazon charges in USD, so prices where converted to ZAR using an exchange rate of R10.41.

Amazon:R 10465.59
Kobo (retail)R 9533.17
Kobo (with coupons)R 1831.58

While Amazon offered the cheapest prices for 18 of the 78 (23%) titles purchased, they turned out to be the most expensive overall. Based on the retail prices Kobo was still 9.87% cheaper than Amazon, but the most remarkable difference come into play when you take the Kobo discount coupons into account. Over the year I've used lots of discount coupons ranging from 35% to 95% off, and the end result shows what a huge saving their cumulative effect can have. With the coupons taken into account Amazon is 571.57% more expensive than Kobo!

When deciding on which ereader to choose you have to pay attention to the hardware device itself, but a far more important consideration is the actual content store the device is tied to. In South Africa the Kindle is still the first thing people think about when they hear ereaders mentioned, but Kobo is slowly gaining ground.

Personally I prefer Kobo since they charge in Rand, their ereaders are much cheaper than Kindles and, as clearly demonstrated, their coupons offer amazing value for money. You'd be silly not to keep that in mind when you have to decide on which ereader to get.

Viva Kobo, viva! Your discount coupons play havoc with my budget and my Olympus Mons of a TBR-pile, but I love you for it!

This has been written from a South African perspective. Publishers in different regions might not allow for discount coupons to be used on their titles, so the difference the coupons make will vary according to your region and whether your favorite publishers allow them or not.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Blind Date with Science Fiction: Answers revealed

Science fiction month has come to a close and it's finally time to reveal the answers for our blind date with science fiction challenge. If you haven't tried it yet, see how well you fare before looking at the answers. The clues tormented me for days and it took me more than a week to decipher most of them, and even then I required some help.

The time of torment is now finally at an end. Without further ado, here are the answers.

1. Apps for the Human Body/Corporate Politics/Antihero
Infoquake by David Louis Edelman
Natch is a master of bio/logics, the programming of the human body. He's clawed and scraped his way to the top of the market using little more than his wits. Now his notoriety has brought him to the attention of Margaret Surina, the owner of a mysterious technology called Multireal. Only by enlisting Natch's devious mind can mulitreal be kept out of the hands of High Executive Len Borda and his ruthless armies.

To fend off the intricate net of enemies closing in around him, Natch and his apprentices must accomplish the impossible: to understand this strange technology, run through the product development cycle, and prepare MultiReal for release to the public - all in three days. Meanwhile, hanging over everything is the spectre of the infoquake, a lethal burst of energy that's disrupting the bio/logic networks and threatening to send the world crashing back into the Dark Ages.

2. Melted Arctic Icecap/ New Wild Frontier/Airship Pilot
Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell
The Arctic Ice Cap has all but melted, and the international community is racing to claim the massive amounts of oil beneath the newly accessible ocean. Enter the Gaia Corporation. Its two founders plan to terraform Earth to save it from itself—but in doing so, they may have created a superweapon the likes of which the world has never seen. Anika Duncan, a pilot for the United Nations Polar Guard, finds herself caught up in a plot by military agencies and corporations who want the Gaia Corporation stopped. But when Gaia loses control of its superweapon, it will be Anika who has to decide the future of the world.

3. Ambiguous Utopia/a World without Government/Brilliant Physicist
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. he will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.

4. Bored Genius/Cruel Empire/Incredible Complex Game
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
The Culture - a humanoid/machine symbiotic society - has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer & strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life and very possibly his death.

5. Dystopia/Prison Experiments/Poetry
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch
Louis Sacchetti is a poet and pacifist imprisoned for refusing to enlist in the war against Third World guerillas. Sacchetti and the other inmates are used in perverse scientific experiments, and Sacchetti is infected with a germ that raises intelligence to incredible heights while causing decay and death.

6. Near Future/Virtual Worlds/Orcs robbing a Bank
Halting State by Charles Stross
In the year 2018, Sergeant Sue Smith of the Edinburgh constabulary is called in on a special case. A daring bank robbery has taken place at Hayek Associates, a dot-com startup company that's just been floated on the London stock exchange. The suspects are a band of marauding orcs, with a dragon in tow for fire support, and the bank is located within the virtual reality land of Avalon Four. For Smith, the investigation seems pointless. But she soon realizes that the virtual world may have a devastating effect in the real one-and that someone is about to launch an attack upon both...

7. Near Future/Augmented Reality/Alzheimer
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Robert Gu is a recovering Alzheimer's patient. The world that he remembers was much as we know it today. Now, as he regains his faculties through a cure developed during the years of his near-fatal decline, he discovers that the world has changed and so has his place in it. He was a world-renowned poet. Now he is seventy-five years old, though by a medical miracle he looks much younger, and he’s starting over, for the first time unsure of his poetic gifts. Living with his son’s family, he has no choice but to learn how to cope with a new information age in which the virtual and the real are a seamless continuum, layers of reality built on digital views seen by a single person or millions, depending on your choice. But the consensus reality of the digital world is available only if, like his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri, you know how to wear your wireless access—through nodes designed into smart clothes—and to see the digital context—through smart contact lenses.

With knowledge comes risk. When Robert begins to re-train at Fairmont High, learning with other older people what is second nature to Miri and other teens at school, he unwittingly becomes part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to use technology as a tool for world domination.

8. Planet Spanning Shield/Earth is Doomed/Teleological Engineering
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
One night in October when he was ten years old, Tyler Dupree stood in his back yard and watched the stars go out. They all flared into brilliance at once, then disappeared, replaced by a flat, empty black barrier. He and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, had seen what became known as the Big Blackout. It would shape their lives. The effect is worldwide. The sun is now a featureless disk--a heat source, rather than an astronomical object. The moon is gone, but tides remain. Not only have the world's artificial satellites fallen out of orbit, their recovered remains are pitted and aged, as though they'd been in space far longer than their known lifespans.

As Tyler, Jason, and Diane grow up, a space probe reveals a bizarre truth: The barrier is artificial, generated by huge alien artifacts. Time is passing faster outside the barrier than inside--more than a hundred million years per year on Earth. At this rate, the death throes of the sun are only about forty years in our future. Jason, now a promising young scientist, devotes his life to working against this slow-moving apocalypse. Diane throws herself into hedonism, marrying a sinister cult leader who's forged a new religion out of the fears of the masses. Earth sends terraforming machines to Mars to let the onrush of time do its work, turning the planet green. Next they send humans...and immediately get back an emissary with thousands of years of stories to tell about the settling of Mars. Then Earth's probes reveal that an identical barrier has appeared around Mars. Jason, desperate, seeds near space with self-replicating machines that will scatter copies of themselves outward from the sun--and report back on what they find. Life on Earth is about to get much, much stranger.

9. Corporate Dystopia/Dr. Easy/Simulated Self is Watching You
The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua
Nelson used to be a radical journalist, but now he works for Monad, one of the world's leading corporations. Monad makes the Red Men-tireless, intelligent, creative, and entirely virtual corporate workers-and it's looking to expand the program.

Nelson finds himself at the helm of a grand project whose goals appear increasingly authoritarian and potentially catastrophic. As the boundaries between Redtown and the real world become ever more brittle, Nelson finds himself forced to choose sides: the corporation or the community, the real or the virtual.

10. Fantasy & SF/Reality Show/ Alternate Dimension/Antihero is the Star
Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover
Renowned throughout the land of Ankhana as the Blade of Tyshalle, Caine has killed his share of monarchs and commoners, villains and heroes. He is relentless, unstoppable, simply the best there is at what he does.

At home on Earth, Caine is Hari Michaelson, a superstar whose adventures in Ankhana command an audience of billions. Yet he is shackled by a rigid caste society, bound to ignore the grim fact that he kills men on a far-off world for the entertainment of his own planet--and bound to keep his rage in check.

But now Michaelson has crossed the line. His estranged wife, Pallas Rill, has mysteriously disappeared in the slums of Ankhana. To save her, he must confront the greatest challenge of his life: a lethal game of cat and mouse with the most treacherous rulers of two worlds . .

11. Classic war novel/Time Dilation/Future Shock
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Earth's leaders have drawn a line in the interstellar sand—despite the fact that the fierce alien enemy that they would oppose is inscrutable, unconquerable, and very far away. A reluctant conscript drafted into an elite Military unit, Private William Mandella has been propelled through space and time to fight in the distant thousand-year conflict; to perform his duties without rancor and even rise up through military ranks. Pvt. Mandella is willing to do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal and return home. But "home" may be even more terrifying than battle, because, thanks to the time dilation caused by space travel, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries.

12. First Contact/Jesuit Mission/Mutilated Hands
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Emilio Sandoz, a brilliant Jesuit priest, seems like the perfect leader for the first expedition to an extraterrestrial culture. However, when Sandoz returns to Earth 20 years later as the mission's sole survivor, he is accused of unspeakable violence and depravity. Why?

13. Colonization mission/Body adapted to Mars/Penis Removal = Trauma
Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
In the not-too-distant future, a desperate war for natural resources threatens to bring civilization to a crashing halt. Nuclear warships from around the globe begin positioning themselves as the American government works feverishly to complete a massive project to colonize Mars. Former astronaut Roger Torraway has agreed to be transformed by the latest advances in biological and cybernetic science into something new, a being that can survive the rigors of Mars before it is terraformed. Becoming Man Plus will allow him to be the linchpin in opening the new Martian frontier…but not without challenging his humanity as no man has ever been challenged before.

14. Visitation Zones/Alien Artefacts/Last, Tragic Foray
Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a "full empty," something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he'll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.

15. Modified Humans/End of Slavery?/Scientific Report
Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter
For years the human race suffered from a deadly Syndrome, but when a cure was found - in the form of genetically engineered human beings, gems - the line between survival and ethics was radically altered. Now the gems are fighting for their freedom, from the oppression of the companies that created them, and against the norms who see them as slaves. And a conference at which Dr Eli Walker has been commissioned to present his findings on the gems is the key to that freedom. But with the gemtech companies fighting to keep the gems enslaved, and the horrifying godgangs determined to rid the earth of these 'unholy' creations, the gems are up against forces that may just be too powerful to oppose.

16. Unique Language/Protagonist is a Simile/Upset Equilibrium
Embassytown by China Miéville
Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that is impossible. (See review)

17. Asteroid Colony/ Water is Running Out/ Reputation Economy
Up Against It by M.J. Locke
Geoff and his friends live in Phocaea, a distant asteroid colony on the Solar System's frontier. They're your basic high-spirited young adults, enjoying such pastimes as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of 'Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans' lives.

Life isn’t as good as it seems, though. A mysterious act of sabotage kills Geoff's brother Carl and puts the entire colony at risk. And in short order, we discover that the whole thing may have been cooked up by the Martian mafia, as a means of executing a coup and turning Phocaea into a client-state. As if that wasn't bad enough, there's a rogue AI that was spawned during the industrial emergency and slipped through the distracted safeguards, and a giant x-factor in the form of the Viridians, a transhumanist cult that lives in Phocaea's bowels.

In addition to Geoff, our story revolves around Jane, the colony's resource manager -- a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She's more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of 'Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty contest competitor. Her manoeuverings to keep politics and engineering in harmony are the heart of the book.

18. Self-Awareness was a Fluke/Freak Ambassadors/Chinese Room
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Two months have past since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us.Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet?Send a linguist with multiple - personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them...

19. Middle Eastern Security State/Young Arab-Indian Hacker/Book of the Jinn
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the "Hand of God," as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.

20. Crowded Earth/ Extrapolation of Trends/Synthesist undercover spy
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Norman Niblock House is a rising executive at General Technics, one of a few all-powerful corporations. His work is leading General Technics to the forefront of global domination, both in the marketplace and politically - it's about to take over a country in Africa. Donald Hogan is his roommate, a seemingly sheepish bookworm. But Hogan is a spy, and he's about to discover a breakthrough in genetic engineering that will change the world... and kill him.

21. Maker Culture/ New Work/ 3D Printers
Makers by Cory Doctorow
Perry and Lester invent things. All sorts of things. Seashell robots that make toast, Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls that drive cars. They also invent an entirely new economic system. 'New Work' is a New Deal for the technological era. Soon barefoot bankers are criss-crossing the nation, microinvesting in high-tech communal start-ups like Perry and Lester's. Together they transform a country, and journalist Suzanne Church is there to document it. But a new economic system requires a whole new belief system -- and there are plenty of non-believers out there. The New Work bust puts the dot.com-bomb to shame and soon Perry and Lester are out of funds and out of business. Down but not out, they go back to what they do best - making stuff. But when a rogue Disney executive grows jealous of their once more soaring popularity and convinces the police that their amazing 3-D printers are being used to run off AK-47s, things get very dark very quickly!

I had loads of fun with the challenge. In the end I managed to identify all of them (14 by myself, 5 with some Googling and 2 with help from Twitter). How did you do?

Huge thanks to Tiemen Zwaan for compiling such a challenging list. You are a devious mastermind!

I hope at least some of the titles pique your interest enough to make it to your TBR-piles. I know I discovered quite a few books I want to read. Hopefully we can do another challenge next year...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review: The Long Earth

Title: The Long Earth

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Pages: 424
ISBN: 9780552164085
Series: The Long Earth #1
Publisher: Corgi
Published: 2012
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

1916: the Western Front, France. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong, and the wind in the leaves in the trees. Where has the mud, blood and blasted landscape of No man's Land gone?

2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Cop Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive – some say mad, others dangerous – scientist when she finds a curious gadget: a box, containing some wiring, a three-way switch and a...potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way Mankind views its world for ever.

And that’s an understatement if ever there was one...

I’m a huge fan of both Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, so when I heard they were collaborating on a science fiction novel it immediately got added to my must-read list.

Step day changed everything. A simple device constructed from components available at any Radio Shack and powered by a potato of all things, opened the doorway to an infinite set of parallel Earths known as the Long Earth. With the flick of a switch people stepped onto another Earth, one completely untouched by the ravages of humanity. Another flick of the switch, and you were on yet another Earth, and another and another... The Long Earth was born.

The cast of characters are compelling. The main story follows Joshua Valienté a loner with a natural knack for stepping who is recruited by Lobsang, an AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repair man, to accompany him on an exploratory mission to see how far the Long Earth stretches. Lobsang’s character is a bit grating initially, but as time progresses he grows on you. There is lots of subtle humour in the relationship between Lobsang and Joshua and their witty banter provides some comic relief (although not on the same level as the Discworld novels) in an otherwise serious novel. There is a perpetual question mark about Lobsang’s true nature that keeps you guessing. Is he really a reincarnated human as he claims, or is he a very, very smart AI?

The Long Earth is also intermingled with the stories of other individuals and families as they try to carve out new lives for themselves in the Long Earth. The most notable of these, the Green family leaves everything they know behind, including their non-stepper son, to join in a pioneering expedition to start afresh on a distant Earth.

I loved the premise of The Long Earth; an infinite string of parallel Earths offering a canvas of endless possibilities and ideas to explore. Baxter and Pratchett excel at contemplating how these other Earths might have developed, how life might have evolved differently from our own and how the sudden accessibility to nearly infinite resources and space might impact human society back on the original Earth (known as Datum Earth).

“Joshua, always remember, you have not travelled back in time, or forward. You have travelled far across the contingency tree of the possible, on a planet where dramatic quasi-random extinction events periodically obliterate much of the family of life, leaving room for evolutionary innovation. On each Earth, however, the outcomes will differ, by a little or a lot..." (p. 272)

Unfortunately this focus on playing with interesting ideas results in a novel with a rather disjointed storyline. The Long Earth is mostly a travelogue chronicling Joshua and Lobsang’s voyage of exploration throughout the Long Earth. There is no real driving force aside from the journey itself. The ostensible threat they discover along the way, the reason the other hominid species are fleeing toward Datum Earth, is far too easily resolved; almost as an afterthought. The cliffhanger ending is abrupt and felt rushed and somehow unfulfilling, leaving you with little idea where the rest of the story is ultimately headed.

The Verdict:
If you can get past its flaws The Long Earth is a fascinating read, especially if you enjoy the exploration of big ideas and the sense of wonder it provides. This is the first novel in a series and it shows in the very abrupt ending. Fans of Terry Pratchett shouldn’t expect anything similar to the Discworld novels. There is some subtle humour, but Pratchett’s unique wit only makes very brief appearances. Where the novel shines is in how deftly it explores all the fascinating possibilities of evolution and how subtle changes in Earth’s history could have caused things to turn out very differently.

The Rating: 6.5 (Good)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

New Arrivals: eBook Insanity

When an offer is too good to refuse, it's just too good to refuse. I know I said I'm trying to cut down on my book buying, but Kobo lured me into yet another trap with their multiple use discount coupons. I ended up going on an insane ebook shopping spree which got just a tad out of control.

I think the image speaks for itself. I managed to grab about 90% of my wishlist so hopefully I'm set for the rest of the year. I think my TBR-pile just grew to 5 or 6 years' worth of reading material. I really should stop buying more books...

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Blind Date with Science Fiction

The American Book Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, has this great initiative where they give customers the chance to have a ‘blind date’ with their next purchase. The books are wrapped in brown paper so customers can’t judge them by their covers or see who the authors are. Labels with the genre and some content keywords provide the only clues to which novels might be lurking beneath the plain coverings. It’s like Christmas, only with book shopping and a huge dose of bookish sleuthing thrown in.

I asked Tiemen Zwaan, the mastermind behind the idea, to compile a list for a blind date with science fiction and he gladly obliged. Our version has a twist: Below you’ll find a list of 21 keywords (42 were just a tad unwieldy even though it’s the answer to life, the universe and everything). Your mission is to try to figure out which novels these clues refer to. Post your answers/guesses in the comments below and at the end of the month the actual titles will be revealed (even I don’t know the answers). Hopefully by then a couple of them will have piqued your interest enough to be worthy additions to your TBR lists.

  1. Apps for the Human Body/Corporate Politics/Antihero
  2. Melted Arctic Icecap/ New Wild Frontier/Airship Pilot
  3. Ambiguous Utopia/a World without Government/Brilliant Physicist
  4. Bored Genius/Cruel Empire/Incredible Complex Game
  5. Dystopia/Prison Experiments/Poetry
  6. Near Future/Virtual Worlds/Orcs robbing a Bank
  7. Near Future/Augmented Reality/Alzheimer
  8. Planet Spanning Shield/Earth is Doomed/Teleological Engineering
  9. Corporate Dystopia/Dr. Easy/Simulated Self is Watching You
  10. Fantasy & SF/Reality Show/ Alternate Dimension/Antihero is the Star
  11. Classic war novel/Time Dilation/Future Shock
  12. First Contact/Jesuit Mission/Mutilated Hands
  13. Colonization mission/Body adapted to Mars/Penis Removal = Trauma
  14. Visitation Zones/Alien Artefacts/Last, Tragic Foray
  15. Modified Humans/End of Slavery?/Scientific Report
  16. Unique Language/Protagonist is a Simile/Upset Equilibrium
  17. Asteroid Colony/ Water is Running Out/ Reputation Economy
  18. Self-Awareness was a Fluke/Freak Ambassadors/Chinese Room
  19. Middle Eastern Security State/Young Arab-Indian Hacker/Book of the Jinn
  20. Crowded Earth/ Extrapolation of Trends/Synthesist undercover spy
  21. Maker Culture/ New Work/ 3D Printers

Don those overcoats, charge up your laser pistols and get sleuthing!

(Google should be a weapon of last resort!)

Stumped? View the answers.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Science Fiction Short Film: Telescope

I came across this beautiful, bittersweet science fiction short film that perfectly blends the fascination I have for both astronomy and science fiction. You can nitpick about the science and the ship design (no debris shield?), but that doesn't detract from the emotional impact it has.

The quote at the end is perfect in so many ways. I don't think I have to explain why. 
 "As men tied to the Earth, we dream of visiting the stars. As men tied to the stars, we will dream of returning home."

You'll definitely want to watch this one in full screen. Enjoy!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sci-fi Month and Why I love Science Fiction

November has sneaked up on us, a brutal reminder that the year is speeding to an end leaving far too few reading days to finish yearly challenges. It also means that Sci-Fi Month hosted by Rinn Reads is in full swing. The aim of Sci-fi month is to celebrate all things science fiction and to get people who might otherwise dismiss the genre interested in what it has to offer.

The default setting for my blog is set to science fiction (sorry, bad Star Trek joke), which means that you won’t really see a big difference in the content I post. I do have some surprises planned, but they are works in progress. So be patient my young Padawans, all will be revealed in due time.

On to the big question...

Why do I love science fiction?

This is a really tough question to answer; you might as well ask me why I love breathing or why I have a fondness for the colour blue (cerulean blue to be precise). I’ve always gravitated to science fiction and I can’t really pinpoint a reason why. Perhaps it’s due to my fascination with the stars. My fondest childhood memories are about spending summer nights just staring up at a sky festooned with billions of twinkling stars. I was awestruck and humbled by their vastness. Once you know the stars you can never again fear the night. The dark becomes a place filled with marvels and mysteries. I couldn’t help but wonder what adventures and amazing discoveries waited amongst those stars. If only we could reach them...

I never lost that sense of wonder and science fiction was just a completely natural fit for me. With the turn of a page SF brings the stars within our reach and explores the big questions. The same questions I had spinning through my head during those summer nights so long ago: Are we alone in the universe? What would other planets look like? How would humanity survive out there in vastness of space? In science fiction I found a home, a place filled with authors who could teleport me to unknown worlds populated by the marvels and mysteries I longed for.

Contrary to popular belief science fiction is not just about aliens and spaceships (admittedly that’s the part I’m most interested it) but it explores the entire spectrum of subjects. Chances are that you’ll find something that fits your interests. To me science fiction is all about the ideas; to imagine what is out there, to push the boundaries of what is possible today and to imagine what might be possible tomorrow. More importantly science fiction is for everybody. If you are fascinated by interesting ideas then SF is the genre for you.

As clichéd as it sounds the reason I love science fiction is for the sense of wonder. Each novel offers the opportunity to discover something new; to see ourselves, our universe and our place in it from new perspectives and to explore the endless possibilities of the unknown. Science fiction doesn’t predict the future it inspires it!

And on that note here are some words of wisdom to guide you in your exploration of science fiction: Don't panic, they can never take the sky from you, the enemy’s gate is down, ALWAYS carry a towel and, most importantly, never forget that the truth is out there!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cover Reveal: The Three

Hodderscape has unveiled the fantastically creepy cover for The Three a stand-alone horror novel by South African author Sarah Lotz. I don't even need to read the blurb to know that I definitely want to read this.

THE THREE by Sarah Lotz
Release date: 22 May 2014
ISBN: 9781444770360
Pre-order a copy from The Book Depository (Free international shipping)

They’re here … The boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many … They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to­­ –
The last words of Pamela May Donald (1961 – 2012)

Black Thursday. The day that will never be forgotten. The day that four passenger planes crash, at almost exactly the same moment, at four different points around the globe.

There are only four survivors. Three are children, who emerge from the wreckage seemingly unhurt.

But they are not unchanged.

Sarah is a screenwriter and novelist who has written critically acclaimed urban horror stories under the name S.L. Grey with author Louis Greenberg, and a YA pulp fiction zombie series with her daughter, Savannah, under the pseudonym Lily Herne.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

New Arrivals

Even the best intentions go awry. My iron resolve not to buy more books has succumbed to the unbearable seduction of discount coupons and the lure of shiny new releases.

The two 50% off discount coupons at Kobo were just too good to resist. I started out buying just one. A couple of days later I bought two more. Then I bought some more...

I got:
Jupiter War - Neal Asher
Marauder - Gary Gibson
On the Steel Breeze - Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie
Proxima - Stephen Baxter
Doctor Sleep - Stephen King
Promise of Blood - Brian McClellan
Final Days and The Thousand Emperors by Gary Gibson
Wool Omnibus - Hugh Howey
Horror Omnibus - Adam Nevill
Carrion Comfort - Dan Simmons

Yes, I might have gone a tad overboard, but I got them at amazing prices (about the same price as 2 hardcover releases) so I'm not regretting it at all. Maybe just a little. Now I only need time to read all the things!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Problem With eBooks

After an eternity of waiting the time had finally arrived. 26 September. Release day. The day I can get my hands on Jupiter War, the final installment in a trilogy I started way back in 2011. Since it takes a month for books to reach South Africa after their UK release getting  the ebook version was the obvious choice. What could be more convenient than immediately delivery, that's what ebooks were made for right?

It turns out that since I'm not using a Kindle, but an ePub based reader instead, I'm not actually allowed to buy the ebook. At least I can't find any legitimate store willing to sell it to me. Kobo, my store of choice, doesn't even list Jupiter War nor does any of the other ebook stores I tried (most of which wouldn't sell it to me based on my location in any case*).

I contacted Tor UK, the publisher, and they were looking into the problem. Apparently the ePub files have been released and should be making their way to ebook retailers. Does that mean that Kindle users get preferential treatment? They had the option to pre-order and at the stroke of midnight on release day they had access to the files. Why should ePub users be treated any differently? I doubt my choice of ereader should play a role in the availability of an ebook.

A quick Google search found numerous sites where I could get a pirated copy of Jupiter War with no hassles at all; in the format of my choice.

When it's easier for people to pirate the books you publish instead of being able to buy them legitimately I think your system needs some serious work. I could so easily have download that pirated copy, but I opted not to. I believe that the author and the rest of the people that made that book possible deserve to be compensated for their work. Many other frustrated readers might not be so kind.

Release day has come and gone and I'm still waiting. It doesn't look like I'll be having that marathon reading session of the Owner trilogy this weekend. Luckily there are other books I can keep myself busy with. Alastair Reynolds' On the Steel Breeze was also released on the same day. At least I'm able to buy that one...

The folks at Tor UK have been excellent in trying to help solve the issue. It seems Kobo is experiencing technical difficulties with the file and they are working to resolve it.

Update II:
I had basically given up hope, but before heading to bed I gave it one more try. This time round Jupiter War was listed as available, and the checkout process managed to complete without any problems. This was one of the most frustrating ebook purchases I've ever experienced and I'm still baffled by the whole thing. I'm just glad that I finally have a copy!

* Note: This is not a problem with geographical restrictions. The book should be available to my region, but some stores don't sell to international users.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The Lowest Heaven

Title: The Lowest Heaven
Edited by: 

Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin
Pages: 342
ISBN: 9780957169692
Publisher: Jurassic London
Published: 2013
Genre: Science Fiction / Anthology
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
Kobo (eBook)
Amazon (eBook)
Amazon (Paperback)
The Book Depository (Paperback)

The Lowest Heaven is a new anthology of contemporary science fiction published in partnership with the Royal Observatory Greenwich to coincide with Visions of the Universe, a major exhibition of space imagery.

Each story in The Lowest Heaven is themed around a body in the Solar System, from the Sun to Halley's Comet. The stories are illustrated with photographs and artwork selected from the archives of the Royal Observatory, while the book's cover and overall design are the work of award-winning South African illustrator Joey Hi-Fi.

The Lowest Heaven had me hooked at their dedication, “To curiosity (big and little c)”. It’s something so simple, yet it sets the tone for the entire anthology. Each story takes a celestial body as inspiration and then embroiders them with fascinating ideas, concepts and characters where the only constraint is the author’s imagination.

The Lowest Heaven features a gorgeous cover by the very talented Joey Hi-Fi. He incorporates loads of little details, the relevance of which only become apparent after you’ve finished reading. Images drawn from the archives of the National Maritime Museum illustrate each story, adding a unique touch. This is one of those books where the physical copy is a beautiful object by itself, and that’s before taking the actual content into account.

The 17 stories included in the anthology draws from a diverse set of authors and covers the entire spectrum of science fiction; they range from the more mainstream, the slightly whimsical to the more serious trappings of hard SF. There are stories of wonder, stories of hope, but also stories with bittersweet endings that will stay with you long afterwards.

Although I enjoyed all the stories in the collection there were some that appealed to me far more than others.

A Map of Mercury – Alastair Reynolds
A visit to Mercury calls into question what it means to be human when an artist literally transforms herself, redefining both her art and her own form.
“He lowered on thrust until his little ship pinned itself to the surface of Mercury like a brooch” (p 34)
Reynolds has a knack for beautifully descriptive prose and uses this intricate trans-human tale to ask the biggest question of them all.

An account of a voyage from World to World again, by way of the Moon, 1726 – Adam Roberts
A Jules Verne-like voyage to the Moon reveals a startling truth about the aliens that inhabit it. I really enjoyed the tone and period style of this account. The revelation at the end is unexpected and hard-hitting.

WWBD – Simon Morden
The commander of a mission to Mars has a tough decision to make. Should he blindly follow his orders to exterminate the alien life discovered on the planet or should he sacrifice himself and his crew in order to follow his own judgement?
“We can send all the robots we like, but it takes humanity to put the soul into exploration” (p 143)
With Ray Bradbury as a supporting character this was one of my favourite stories. It’s both melancholy and hopeful at the same time and a very fitting tribute to Bradbury.
“Wouldn’t it be better to think that part of me is part of you? That everyone who’s ever read me makes me just a little bit alive?” (p 149)

We’ll always be here – S.L. Grey
Twin sisters in an orphanage are called upon to accomplish a tremendous task.
This story seemed a little juvenile at first with one of the characters being obsessed with America’s Next Top Model, but the tragic turn it takes towards the end took me by surprise. South Africans are guaranteed to chuckle at the very aptly named Eskombot, especially under the circumstances it makes its first appearance.

The Comet’s Tale – Matt Jones
Two teenage boys struggling to find their own place in the world are drawn into the clutches of a cult, which leads to a tragic conclusion. A truly touching story about unrequited love and sacrifice. The last line will tear your heart to shreds.

The Grand Tour – James Smythe
The Voyager probe returns to a post-apocalyptic world bringing with it the chance of a very unconventional salvation. I loved the captivating setting, the unique take on first contact and how it irrevocably changes both the aliens and humanity itself.

I relished every moment I spent reading The Lowest Heaven. Even after rationing myself to a story a day the end came far too quickly for my liking. The last story, The Grand Tour, ends with these apt words, “I wonder how far I’ll be carried; how far I can go”. And that, the pushing of boundaries into the unknown, that is what science fiction is all about.

The Verdict:
The Lowest Heaven is a stunning collection of short stories covering the entire spectrum of science fiction. The stories range from the more mainstream, the slightly whimsical to the more serious trappings of hard SF. As a whole the collection works extremely well in exploring humanity and our place in the Solar System. If you enjoy short stories and have even a passing interest in astronomy then this anthology will definitely not disappoint. It has something for every taste. Highly recommended!

The Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

New Arrivals

As you might know from previous posts I'm really trying to cut back on buying books this year. My TBR Decimation challenge isn't quite working out as I intended, but I think requiring 10 books to be read for every new book I purchase was a tad unrealistic. I've readjusted my goal to a much more manageable 3 to 1 ratio. Currently I've read 43 books and I've bought 27 (including ebooks). Not quite there, but if I read more books in the coming months I might still make it.

On to the purchases.

I ordered the Culture box set which contains the first free novels in Iain M. Banks' Culture series. The copies I have were hand-me-downs and since they are looking quite tattered it was time for a refresh. In order to get free shipping I also ordered a copy of The Twelve by Justin Cronin. I still need to read the first book in the series, but I'll get there. Eventually.

I was also fortunate enough to win a copy of Paul McAuley's In The Mouth Of The Whale. I've been meaning to try his work for ages now and this just gives me an added incentive.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: The 5th Wave

Title: The 5th Wave
Author: Rick Yancey
Pages: 458
ISBN: 9780141345819
Series: The 5th Wave #1
Publisher: Penguin
Published: 2013
Genre: Science Fiction / YA
Source: Won in competition

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one.

Now, it's the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth's last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie's only hope for rescuing her brother--or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey was released with a tremendous amount of hype. For months you couldn’t visit book blogs or YouTube without spotting it in book hauls or seeing rave reviews. It was billed as the ‘most anticipated YA novel of the year’, the ‘Next Big Thing’, the ‘next Hunger Games’... Those are tough shoes to fill and while I’m sure all the marketing led to increased sales, it also makes it incredibly difficult for the novel to live up to the hype and expectations. Hype is a two-sided sword.

I wanted to love The 5th Wave, I really did. The premise was brilliant, the grim, unsettling post-apocalyptic world made for a great setting and all the characters were memorable and engaging, but something felt wrong. Initially I couldn’t quite figure out what the problem was and then it hit me, things felt too contrived. It was as if Yancey knew exactly where the story had to go, and forced the characters and events to conform to that idea even if it didn’t really make sense or feel like a natural turn of events. By their very nature every novel is contrived, but when it’s done right you never notice it. The characters, their choices and the world they inhabit needs to feel natural; it has to have consistency and more importantly it has to make sense. And that’s where The 5th Wave falters. Behind the veneer of a brilliant, fast-paced story lurks a world full of logical inconsistencies. Once you spot them you can’t help chipping away, noticing more and more as the story progresses. It’s like a bad magic show where the sleight-of-hand is just slow enough to follow and where you can spot the squirming dove long before it’s eventually released.

The main protagonist Cassie is a feisty, snarky, independent sixteen-year-old girl who has lost most of her family. She’s caught in a desperate struggle to survive while trying to find her little brother. She can’t afford to trust anyone since the aliens are masquerading as humans, yet when she meets Evan Walker, a saviour appearing seemingly at random, she fawns over him throwing all caution to the wind in what must be one of the most awkward insta-love romances I’ve come across. What happened to the tough Cassie that could look after herself? The Cassie who killed someone when she didn’t know what he was reaching for? It seems a romantic relationship is a prerequisite for every YA novel so it had to be added, despite the fact that it goes against everything you would expect from the character, diminishing them in the process. Heck, towards the end there’s even foreshadowing for a possible love triangle. Another one of those required YA tropes.

It was at this point that I lost all respect for Cassie. Luckily Zombie and his squad of misfit soldiers kept things interesting enough to keep going. It’s telling when you care far more about the secondary characters than the main protagonist.

My biggest problem with The 5th Wave is that the aliens seem to be complete idiots. Explaining why would involve spoilers, so I’ll elaborate more in a separate section after the verdict and rating.

The plot has some interesting twists and turns, but most of them where predictable and didn’t come as much of a surprise. The ending is satisfying, but quite abrupt and it’s clear that this is the first novel in a trilogy. Despite all the issues I’ve had with the novel I’d be interested to see where Yancey goes next. Hopefully it can only get better.

The Verdict:
The 5th Wave has a great premise, good writing, and memorable characters but it ultimately disappoints by sticking to YA tropes. The plot is full of logical inconsistencies and after a brilliant start the actions of the Others just doesn't make much sense aside from being what the story demanded to happen. If you are new to sci-fi this might satisfy, but people more familiar with the genre will find the inconsistencies irksome. The 5th Wave is still an enjoyable read, but it could have been so much better if Yancey took more care in developing the aliens and their motives.

The Rating: 5.5 (Average to Good)


I picked up lots of inconsistencies in the 5th Wave, most of these are things that just didn’t make much sense. Then again I might be too old and jaded to enjoy YA.

Why is Cassie not allowed on the bus? When the army comes to collect the children from camp Ashpit they only take Sammy. Cassie is sixteen (p 79) and Zombie, Ben Parish, is seventeen (p 105). They allow Ben to join Camp Haven even though he is infected with the disease and a year older than Cassie. It can’t be her age or gender since other girls are allowed in Camp Haven. Being healthy Cassie would be a much better prospect for recruitment.

The 5th Wave makes no sense. The actual wave, not the novel. Why would the aliens take all the time and effort to indoctrinate and train children so they can go out and hunt their fellow humans? The drones and Silencers would be far more efficient and take much less time. Not to mention that it wouldn’t allow for a newly trained human army to rise up against you.

The aliens are pure consciousness. Why would they need to take over the planet?
We haven’t had bodies in tens of thousands of years... We are pure consciousness (p 369)
They don’t need food or other resources so what is the whole purpose of the invasion?

The aliens put a mission critical base within easy reach.
"Wright-Patterson isn’t just any base – it’s the base... Vosch isn’t any commander – he’s the commander, the leader of all field operations and the architect of the cleansing” (p 365)
Humanity doesn’t have any space capability left, so instead of running things from the safety of your mothership where nothing could harm you, you decide to move your base of operations to a far more vulnerable location on Earth. Not only do you have that base act as the controlling hub for all your drones, you also stock it with some of your most advanced explosives. Nothing could ever go wrong with that plan...

What happens when all the humans are killed?
“There aren’t that many of us, only a few hundred thousand... They saw pretending to be human as beneath them.” (p 372)
What will they do once they win? They don’t have bodies so how will they inhabit the Earth when all the humans are killed?

Why wait?
“We’ve been watching you for six thousand years.” (p 435)
They’ve been watching humanity for thousands of years. Why not eradicate primitive man when there are far fewer of us, we don’t have any technology to fight back with and we haven’t had a chance to devastate the environment. Why wait till it becomes more difficult to eradicate us?

If you've read The 5th Wave I'd love to hear what you thought. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Cover Reveal: Raising Steam

The cover for Raising Steam, the 40th Discworld novel, has been unveiled. The very brief synopsis doesn't give much away, but it seems that Moist von Lipwig will make a triumphant return. I can only imagine the mayhem the introduction of locomotives to the Discworld might bring.

Author: Terry Pratchett
Release date - 7 November 2013
ISBN: 9780857522276
Pre-order from The Book Depository

Change is afoot in Ankh-Morpork - Discworld's first steam engine has arrived, and once again Moist von Lipwig finds himself with a new and challenging job.