Monday, March 23, 2020

The Stay Far, Far Away Bingo Reading Challenge

We all need something to keep our minds off of the current state of the world. While trying to ease my anxiety during my lunch break at work today I came up with the Stay Far, Far Away Bingo reading challenge.

If you've ever played bingo, or seen bingo played you can participate. Each time you read a book related to a specific prompt you cross it out, get 5 in a row and you have successfully completed the challenge. It couldn't be easier.

(This beautiful, high-tech version courtesy of @LetsRead)

(A low-fi version for those of us still stuck with monochrome printers.)

The rules are simple:
  • You need to read one book per prompt. This means the same book can't be used for multiple prompts.
  • Not all books need to be science fiction. While most prompts are science fiction related there are some genre-agnostic prompts for the times you might need a change of pace.
  • You can take as much time to finish the challenge as you want. No deadlines. No pressure.

I hope this brings a small bit of fun into your reading lives. And while you are at it also check out The Book Tempter's TBR Book challenge. Quite a few of the challenges overlap, so you can do both at the same time and make your TBR a tad bit smaller.

Please feel free to share the books you ending up reading in the comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #FarFarAwayBingo

Have fun and stay safe out there!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

New Arrivals: The Panic Edition

With everything going on in the world right now we need to find joy in the small things. For me that means buying books. The process of opening a newly arrived package and smelling the sweet aroma of new books provides an immense sense of comfort.

Since March is my birthday month I decided to spoil myself with a couple of books. The first two batches are books I ordered as a birthday gift to myself. I ordered these in February, but they took a while to get here.

And then the world went crazy. The first COVID-19 cases started to appear in South Africa, our currency nosedived and things are looking more uncertain as the number of cases increase daily. There was a flash book sale on a local online site. The selection of SFF titles wasn't great, but that didn't stop me.

I know nothing about these comic trades. They were cheap. I bought them.

The Lovecraft omnibus editions were total cover buys. I just love their pulpy horror look. The rest were the only science fiction and fantasy titles left, so I got them all.

Some people panic buy toilet paper, I buy books.

Wash your hands, stay isolated with some good books and be safe out there!

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Review: Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L. Powell

Title: Light of Impossible Stars
Author: Gareth L. Powell
Pages: 364
ISBN: 9781785655241
Publisher: Titan Books
Published: 18 February 2020
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Low on fuel and hunted by the Fleet of Knives, the sentient warship Trouble Dog follows a series of clues that lead her to the Intrusion - an area of space where reality itself becomes unstable. But with human civilisation crumbling, what difference can one battered old ship have against an invincible armada?

Meanwhile, Cordelia Pa and her step-brother eke out their existence salvaging artefacts from an alien city. But when Cordelia starts hearing the city's song in her head, strange things start happening around her. What extraordinary affinity does she have for this abandoned technology, and how can it possibly help the Trouble Dog?

After reading Embers of War I absolutely fell in love with Trouble Dog, a sassy sentient spaceship with attitude in spades and her small crew of flawed, traumatised people as they try to make amends for their violent pasts by saving lives instead of taking them. Embers of War was a great introduction to some fascinating characters, a universe filled with endless promise and an ending that hinted at a discovery that could change their civilization forever.

I couldn’t wait to dive into the second book, Fleet of Knives, but by the time I was ready to pick it up the release of Light of Impossible Stars was so near I decided to wait just a bit longer in order to binge the rest of the trilogy in one go.

"You could have been a bit less blunt."
"I’m a warship, Captain. I don’t do 'less blunt'".

Fleet of Knives was an enjoyable read, but it felt like an interlude with groundwork being laid for something bigger and better. A quintessential example of middle book syndrome. It was great to fly with Trouble Dog again, but it just didn’t captivate me to the same extent as the impressive Embers of War. This time around the alien engineer Nod absolutely stole the show and overshadowed everyone else with a cuteness overload.

Light of Impossible Stars, the final book in the trilogy, is very different in tone from Embers of War and things quickly take a very dark turn. As everything falls apart around them the Trouble Dog and her crew are thrust into a struggle for survival, not just for themselves but for humanity as a whole. What difference can one ship even make?
"And still the carnage went on. It permeated our dreams and flavoured the food we forced ourselves to eat. We were impotent witnesses out here, beyond the borders of human-explored space, unable to influence the apocalypse as it played out in second-hand, static-jagged fragments. Nothing we could do or say could possibly save any of the souls tipping relentlessly into the dark; and yet we couldn’t turn away. This was our catastrophe as much as anyone’s; on this day, we were all simply human beings cowering from an implacable force of nature - the latest in a series of bottlenecks that had tried, over the millennia, to winnow our species to nothing." (page 22)
I had high hopes for the trilogy and I really wanted to love Light of Impossible Stars, but unfortunately it fell just short of my expectations. I was here for Trouble Dog and her crew. I wanted to know their story and how they could possibly beat the impossible odds they face. Unfortunately the narrative shifts away from Trouble Dog and instead focuses on the introduction of Cordelia Pa, and other brand new characters who could hold the keys to humanity’s survival. This shift felt jarring to me and while I enjoyed Cordelia’s story it sidelined the characters I had the biggest bond with. It almost felt as if the Trouble Dog and her crew were demoted to supporting character status in their own novel. Had Cordelia Pa been introduced in Fleet of Knives, the shift would not have been as jarring and would've provided the reader with more time to grow attached to her character in a more gradual way.

As always Trouble Dog and Nod kept stealing the show from their human counterparts and they are somehow even more endearing this time round. Trouble Dog still brings all the sass and attitude to the party, but she has also grown immensely from the first novel exhibiting more humanity and compassion as she learns how to deal with loss and grief.  Her crew becomes her found family and it's this bond which makes it such an engaging read. Nod provides some much needed comic relief with its constant exasperation at the Hound of Difficulty's recklessness adding even more damage for it to repair.

Light of Impossible Stars is a very fast read. The pacing is relentless, leaving you breathless by the time you reach the final confrontation. There are moments of joy, sadness and poignant redemption, but they almost go by in a blur not leaving enough time for things to sink in. The ending is satisfying and the last chapter hints at even more adventures to come for Trouble Dog.

My biggest criticism of Light of Impossible Stars, and the trilogy as a whole, is that it favours action over depth. The relentless pace of the story doesn’t leave enough room to explore the impact and implications of events and revelations on the characters. Taking the time to do so would’ve made the story a far richer, more emotional experience and elevated it from a very good read to something far more impactful.

Should you pick up the Embers of War Trilogy? Hell, yes! The Hound of Difficulty demands it!

The Verdict:
Light of Impossible Stars offers a satisfying conclusion to the Embers of War trilogy, but doesn’t quite live up to its full potential. The introduction of brand new characters this late in the series shifts the focus away from Trouble Dog and her crew and leaves little room to fully explore the consequences of events, diminishing the impact of the story somewhat. It's still a very good read offering loads of action and some truly memorable characters. If more adventures await the Trouble Dog I’ll definitely be along for the ride!

The Rating: 7/10 (Very Good)

Monday, March 9, 2020

Making Time To Read

Recently I haven't been reading much. Job stress left me a drained, exhausted husk with barely enough energy to lift a book, let alone read it. This wasn't a reading slump. I wanted to read, I just couldn't muster the energy or time to do it. Being surrounded by huge TBR-piles just heaped even more stress on top of everything, causing my anxiety to skyrocket.

I had to do something.

This past weekend I decided it was time to finally put aside some serious time for reading. I switched off all my devices, barricaded myself in my room and attempted to read for 24 hours. I'm long past the age where 24 continuous hours would be a possibility so I settled for spacing the 24 hours over the entire weekend.

I started off well, but on Saturday life interfered, as it normally does, and I lost out on quite a few reading hours. (Napping due to a power outage wasn't the greatest idea. I overslept somewhat...).

By Sunday evening I was running out of hours and had to settle for a total of 16 hours of reading. My brain was a relaxed, buzzing pile of mush gorged on fantastic stories. For the first time in a very long time I managed to  finish reading, not just one, but two novels of over a single weekend.

While I didn't quite reach my initial goal I couldn't be happier with the result. It was a great way to get rid of all the stress, I read some awesome stories and my TBR-pile got just that little bit smaller.

I highly recommend setting aside a weekend to devote solely to reading. It's worth it!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Title: Wanderers
Author: Chuck Wendig
Pages: 782
ISBN: 9781781088104
Publisher: Solaris
Published: 1 June 2019
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world's last hope.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and her sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

Wanderers is a hefty tome, both in size and subject matter. It’s a grim, prescient read that ebbs and flows with melancholy as the world is ravaged by not one, but two mysterious outbreaks. The first turns people into sleepwalkers. Without warning they become completely unresponsive to outside stimuli and start heading unwaveringly towards an unknown destination. Trying to restrain or impede their progress in any way has dire consequences. The second outbreak is far more deadly, initially manifesting as flu-like symptoms it transitions into madness and ultimately death. It’s the end of the world. Will anyone survive?

Through the lens of a collapsing society plagued by disease Chuck Wendig explores American society in all its messy glory. Throughout the narrative there’s a layer of bigotry, racism, sexism and fanaticism, both political and religious, which acts as the driving force behind the worst of what humanity has to offer. But in all that darkness there’s also hope - while the world falls apart there are still people who show compassion to each other. The shepherds, the families of those making up the flock of sleepwalkers, still care for and protect those they hold dear. Even when they know they will likely not survive they carry on in the belief that the flock will outlast them.

Wendig deftly interweaves so many diverse concepts into the story that you are always left amazed at each new revelation. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. Just as you think you have a handle on everything he drops another bombshell forcing you to reevaluate everything. Both the nature and source of the sleepwalker illness is something far different from what I ever expected.

The characters are engaging and fleshed out. Their vastly different backgrounds make for a very interesting dynamic as their paths converge. Shana Stewart is desperately trying to care for her sister, Nessie, who might just have been the first of the flock. Benjamin Ray, a disgraced CDC doctor tries to uncover the nature of the disease in order to find a cure. Pastor Matthew discovers the limelight, inciting religious fervor at the coming signs of the Apocalypse. And finally Pete Corley an aging rockstar who ran away from his family looking for one last hurrah. While I didn’t care much for some of them, they all have a crucial role to play and there’s a quite poignant redemption arc for one of the characters.

Hell, nobody’s okay,” Dove said. “Maybe we never were, and we damn sure aren’t now. But we’re here. Until we’re not. And that’s all I find it fair to ask for.”

Reading Wanderers is a slow, melancholy experience. It's grim, prescient and impactful in the most unsettling of ways. With news coverage of the Coronavirus outbreak it was a surreal reading experience hitting far too close to home. The ending floored me, driving home a horrific twist I didn’t anticipate and elevating the story to a whole different level.

The Verdict:
Wanderers is a grim, prescient read that ebbs and flows with melancholy and hits far too close to home with the current Coronavirus outbreak. A great apocalyptic read in the most unsettling of ways. Highly recommended!

The Rating: 8/10 (Great!)

[Trigger warning: Rape (Chapter 50) ]

Thanks to Charlene from Jonathan Ball Publishers for the review copy.