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I have read a lot of science fiction and fantasy books in my time, and this trilogy is top-of-the-range in either category.

It is unique in many ways, but most of them I can't tell you about without seriously spoiling the plot.

I can say that it's the only work I have read in which the “science” part is geology, and that the style of story-telling includes passages addressed to “you”, putting you in the story as one of the characters - but which one, and who is telling you the story, is something you don't find out until the end.

The whole trilogy, in fact, is a gripping and apparently endless series of reveals.

The excellent review (click the image above to read) contains spoilers, so please don't read too far if you read it at all.

I will risk one extract from the review:

What also makes this work unique is the author herself, the first black winner of SF and Fantasy's prestigious Hugo Award (which was given to each of the novels in this trilogy as it appeared).

If you click the image below, which comes from a different excellent review in The Guardian, you will learn more about the author and also about the trilogy (relatively spoiler-free).
N.K. Jemisin


If you like this...

[More SF and fantasy books from my Books Page]

The World of Paksennarion


If you like fantasy books such as those by J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey or Christopher Paolini, and have never heard of Elizabeth Moon, then a real treat is in store for you.

These are the main “Paksworld novels”, which essentially form a single epic story in two very long parts, the second part split into 5 volumes.

(The first book by itself is nearly as long as The Lord of the Rings, containing far more than its title would suggest, and was also split into 3 volumes for paper publication.)

The unique flavour of these books naturally has to do with the author herself. Among other things, she became a 1st Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps while on active duty, is an experienced paramedic, has degrees in history and biology, and obviously knows everything there is to be known about horses (and mules).

These books, set in a complex medieval world, often read like a well-researched historical novel. However, no historical novels or epic fantasies that I have read contain the kind of action and adventures taking place here, nor the qualities shown by several of its main characters in the leadership and personal development of people.

Click the image or go here if you would like to read more about them in the Fantasy section of my Books page. You won't be sorry.


This book is a nail-biting masterpiece of ingenuity, perserverance and human spirit - not to mention considerable humour in the face of major adversity.

Short version of the plot: an authentic survival adventure in the spirit of Apollo 13, the main action taking place on a very real Mars.

Longer version: click the image to the right!

Warnings:

(1) This book has been described as “hard sci-fi” but is really “hard engineering”. For me, it captures perfectly the co-operative human qualities and engineering skills that make space exploration very unlike (say) politics in Washington (some thoughts on that here). However, if technical details of what it takes to stay alive in a hostile environment are not your thing, the book may not be for you - but you might want to take a risk with it anyway!

(2) If you have to go to work next morning, don't start reading it the night before...

(Found for me by Karenak, whose help pages anyone new to Categorian should visit - but there is much more to her pages than help!)


PS: I see that Ridley Scott is making a film of this book starring Matt Damon, due for release 25 November 2015.

If you like science fiction...

[The SF section of my books page]

...or the real thing...

[Curiosity Rover lands on Mars, screenshots from NASA TV with my commentary from watching it live]
[Mars Curiosity Rover on Facebook]
[NASA JPL on Facebook]



What is Suzanne Collins doing with in Central Park with a rat, you ask?

I'll get there in a minute.

Suzanne is probably best known for her “young adult” blockbuster trilogy The Hunger Games. I nearly didn't read the books, or see the movies, because a short description of the plot (children fight to the death in an arena) somehow didn't seem like my thing.

In fact, as several authors who have climbed on her bandwagon have found out, The Hunger Games is a very tough act to follow. The story is basically about an uprising against oppression and injustice in a dystopian future. Beginning with a struggling community in the Appalachians, the author makes you really care about the characters and what happens to them. It is a truly gripping adventure, very well told, and there is no upper age limit on who might enjoy it.

Looking around for something else by the same author, I discovered Gregor the Overlander, a single story in 4 parts (the last part spread over 2 books) notionally aimed at a younger readership than The Hunger Games.

As with The Hunger Games, a short description of the plot (boy living in New York descends to an underworld populated by giant rats, bats, cockroaches and a whole range of other talking beasties) wouldn't make me want to read it. And as with The Hunger Games, it's hard to convey easily how very good the story is, and why there is also no upper age limit on who might enjoy it.

The themes in the story are actually very adult (and very relevant to today's world), and many traditional conventions of children's books are well and truly broken. There are many heartwarming moments as unlikely bonds are formed with apparently loathsome and/or fearsome creatures, but there are also scenes of horror, agonizing loss and dire peril - and yet it is still a story that children can read (see here, for instance).

The climax of the gripping story includes a siege that reminded me strongly of the battle for Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings, and a moving love story between two very young people that is not a fairy tale.

If you like reading, and whatever age you are, I recommend this one.

(Like The Hunger Games, it's also available as good-value (and properly produced) eBooks.)



If you like this...

[Brian's Place - The Book Corner]



What can I tell you about this cracking first novel by Sally Green, without giving away the plot?

Half Bad a young adult fantasy novel (a genre that contains many of my favourite books), set in a modern-day world of male and female witches. It's some distance away from the world of Harry Potter (muggles are fains in Half Bad, but any close resemblance pretty much ends there).

As the story develops, it reminds me oddly of the first “Jason Bourne” movie, as the hero becomes a boy with a mission, pursued by various evils, while his own nature and identity (as well as those around him) are an unfolding mystery.

The style of writing (for me) has a dash of Suzanne Collins, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman and even at times Quentin Tarantino, with a hefty slug of originality.

You will find plenty more about the book here (or click the image). It's also available as a good-value (and properly produced) eBook.

A word of warning: this is only the first book of the “Half Life” trilogy, and the next part, “Half Wild”, isn't due out until March 24th, 2015.

If you like this...

[Brian's Place - The Book Corner]


Science, Religion and Quantum Mechanics

The image above is mine - feel free to share...

It turns out that all the technology that is based on transistors - computers, mobile phones, the Internet, you name it - depends on the strange reality of quantum physics, as does almost everything that we see (and don't see) around us.

I recently read, or rather am having the great pleasure of working through in several passes, most of The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen Does Happen, a book written by Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. (I say “most of” because the the chapters in the book lead you up to a real worked example in the Appendix, a seriously high mountain which I have yet to attempt!)

In 1927 J.B.S. Haldane famously wrote: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The Universe is truly a queer and wonderful place, and this book clearly explains some of its most queer and wonderful mechanisms. The method of explanation, using familiar clock faces and waves, doesn't eliminate the occasionally frightening mathematics, but conveys brilliantly what is really going on.

(Anyone thinking "I can't do maths", by the way, has never had teachers like these (or Salman Khan, see bottom of this post). I wish they had taught me when I first attempted to learn this stuff!)

Equally fascinating is the authors' explanation of how science reached its current understanding of the theory that predicts so accurately how the Universe behaves, from the chemistry of life (and table salt) to why (since atoms are mostly empty space) we don't fall through the floor, to the life-cycle of stars.

Unusually in a science book, the authors are not afraid to explain the limitations of science, either: scientific knowledge isn't perfect and fixed, but always growing, and here is a great description of how science helps knowledge to grow.

You can read a really good review of the book here. Click the images for more about the authors.

I find it sad that in today's world some religions still cannot accept science, but must imagine an alternative reality (with a bogus science that doesn't constantly test itself critically against evidence, as real science does) that doesn't conflict with their beliefs.

It is also ironic, as well as sad, that people following these religions promote their messages (and do much else) using technology that depends on the science that they don't believe in.

Creationists (or whatever they call themselves) have a perfect right to believe in whatever they want. However I find it horrifying to read about persistent attempts to have Creationism taught in classrooms, and teachers being intimidated for teaching real science.

Disrespect for science is no new thing, and not confined to reality-denying religions. The “mad scientist”, for example, has always been a popular feature of movies and TV shows (even in The Muppets, one of my all-time favourites!). Scientists have not always performed well, and have not always found it easy to communicate clearly with the non-scientific public (a hard but essential job when issues like climate change and health are at stake).

A while back, the UK woke up to the fact that its future prosperity depended on reversing this trend, and many popular science programmes (among other things) have resulted - from the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory to some extraordinarily illuminating programmes featuring Brian Cox.

J.B.S. Haldane, should he be observing from somewhere what is happening in physics today, might not change his suspicion (the inner workings of gravity, for instance, still have much to reveal to science) - but I am sure that he would be “watching developments with great interest”.


If you like this...

[More thoughts on Science and Religion]
[Is our weather getting worse? (major Channel 4 documentary)]
[Some wonders from NASA]
[Some thoughts on Science and Politics]
[One of the greatest FREE learning and teaching resources on the Internet: The Khan Academy]


I have just finished reading The Night Circus, a very ambitious first novel of love and magic by Erin Morgenstern.

For me it is almost a really great book - there was so much that I liked about it, but sometimes (especially early on) what I call the "narrative drive" kept faltering, while various wonders continued to unfold. Eventually, however, I was gripped, and it would be worth reading if only to enjoy the author's wonderful imagination and descriptive powers. I shall certainly read it again.

An excellent review of it (which I fully agree with) can be found here.

The book is obviously a very attractive proposition for movie makers, and it seems that Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment are approaching some kind of deal on its production. Eager fans aren't waiting - the movie poster to the left, and the trailer below, are totally unofficial (click either image for more).

There is also a feeling by fans of the book, which I share, that the scope for making a real mess of bringing the story to the big screen is considerable. On the other hand, if done well, the movie could be a cracker. I await the outcome with eager nervousness...







This is a small fragment of a very large "Speculative World Map". It's a work of art produced by serMountainGoat, a dedicated fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's epic (and still incomplete) medieval fantasy that begins with A Game of Thrones. I found it here.

(Click the map fragment to see the full map - and you'll need to click again to view it full size. I borrowed an A3 printer and made myself a (slightly reduced) tiled printout of the map on six A3 sheets, which when assembled covers most of our dining table!)

I have just finished reading all of the available books in this astonishing, engrossing and occasionally exasperating epic fantasy, which is still incomplete (only 5 of the planned 7 books have been written). If you haven't read it, you will find an excellent description of it in this Wikipedia article.

One of the few works it can be compared to (although it is very different in many ways) is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Both stories live in a richly detailed invented world with a deep history, worlds which are in some ways alternative versions of our own. Both authors have "R.R." as their middle initials (Ronald Reuel and Raymond Richard respectively). Apart from that, there are many more differences than similarities!

Tolkien's story occupied 1,215 pages in the original 3-volume hardback edition, comprising a prologue, 62 chapters and the extensive appendices.

The first 5 books in Martin's story occupy 4,408 pages in the original hardback editions (many more pages in paperback), comprising 344 chapters and in each volume a prologue, epilogue and an appendix of characters. There are over 1,000 named characters in this vast work, with the story (so far) told mainly through the viewpoints of about 12 of them.

Tolkien's story is told principally from the viewpoint of the four Hobbits, with Frodo as the main character. The Fellowship of the Ring is a continuous narrative with one main viewpoint (Frodo and the hobbits as a group). In The Two Towers the narrative splits into several streams, each containing continuous narratives of several chapters at a time. In the first half of The Two Towers Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas track down the two captured hobbits, the two captured hobbits escape and encounter Treebeard, and the threads eventually come together at Isengard after the battle of Helm's Deep. In the second half of The Two Towers Frodo and Sam trek to Mordor, ending with the cliffhanger as Frodo is captured after encountering Shelob. The Return of the King follows the war through three narrative streams (Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in one, Merry and Pippin separately in two others), before returning to Frodo and Sam's final achievement and reunion with the others, followed by the long unwinding of the Fellowship.

Martin's story (so far) is told from the viewpoints of some 12 main characters (good and evil, intelligent and stupid, in various shades and combinations), plus some extra relatively minor ones. Each such character is featured in a single chapter, before the narrative switches to another viewpoint and another chapter. This is surprisingly effective, but means that the reader often has to wait a very long time to return to an engrossing narrative thread. Also, the sheer size of the work means that he has had to split the story intended for Book 4 into two geographical sections, the second of which was postponed to Book 5, and he has postponed natural climaxes from Book 5 to Book 6 - which might take 3 years for him to complete.

In spite of all this, I can really recommend the books so far (and the above map, which is essential). They are all available together as a single eBook, with a free sample that contains a good-sized chunk of Book 1. (We now have two Kindles in the family, since it was my wife who originally wanted to read Martin's epic. We discovered that you can share an eBook amongst up to 6 Kindles bought by the same person, so we were both reading the same eBook on our recent holiday in the Cathar region of France - see below - which seemed very appropriate to the story.)




Ripping Things to Do is a simply wonderful book (another recommendation from my younger daughter - her previous suggestion is here). It is several things at once: an anthology of classic children's books (English, American and Swedish), a treasure trove of ideas and resources for children's activities based on those books, a nostalgia trip for parents who can remember the days before computer games, and more.

I can also highly recommend this review of the book. It comes from a very nice blogger (as does the above image), and can't possibly add anything to it - except to say that the book is aimed at parents of both boys and girls.


(Original post: April 11th, 2011)

"Treasure Hunt" a beautiful image by Aimee Stewart (a.k.a. Foxfires)


Those people who like my web site may be interested to know that I have just a completed a major revamp and update to my Books page, and also to my Movies page. You're most welcome to visit!

Update October 11th, 2011:

Now that I am off SU, I was looking for an icon for "Categorian" to replace the SU symbol in various pages on my web site (which now points to places here instead of there in many places). I'm quite taken with this one! Click the cat for an example of a page that uses it.



I came across this wonderful book in a BBC programme called "Nordic Noir", which has become a general term to describe the English-speaking world's new-found appreciation for the superb crime writing and television productions coming to us from Scandinavia.

This particular book's plot is well described here. What is harder to convey is the brilliant quality of the writing, even in translation. I am reminded in a way of those wonderful movies like Doctor Zhivago, shot in 70mm and shown on a very large screen, with every scene full of many tiny crisp details. Nowadays we would describe those movies as being shot in "high definition", and Peter Hoeg's book is the literary equivalent - "high definition writing", if you like. He makes you feel and see every detail around you, and they are fascinating details woven into a highly gripping and unusual plot.

Highly recommended.

P.S.

My favourite online book store isn't Amazon, it's Abebooks.com (Abebooks.co.uk in the UK). This is the Advanced Book Exchange, a Canadian-based site that links you up with just about every second-hand bookshop on the planet. If you have never tried it, follow the links to see what you have been missing!




If you like this...

[Brian's Place - The Book corner]



This cartoon (not from the book club) was snaffled gratefully from Johnshaven (Alison), whose pages are another great place to go if you like reading










For bookworms...

[The Guardian Book Club]
[Alison's book posts]
[Brian's Place - The Book Corner]





"Wake" is a highly enjoyable novel, the first of a trilogy about the World Wide Web, by the Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, probably best known for Flashforward.

It is the story of a maths- and internet-savvy 15-year-old girl, Caitlin Decter (online moniker "Calculass"), who has been blind from birth. When she is given an experimental computer-linked implant to restore sight in one eye, it is discovered that her brain has co-opted the visual cortex in order to help her navigate the web. The result is that instead of seeing the real world around her (at least at first), she "sees" the complex and fascinating structure of the World Wide Web itself.

It is also the story of the World Wide Web, and the idea that its huge connectivity, combined with one aspect of its communication mechanisms behaving as cellular automata, could give rise to a machine consciousness.

What happens when these two consciousnesses meet - one human, one "other" - is truly fascinating, both as a story and as scientific speculation, and is seen from both their points of view.

The trilogy continues in "Watch" and "Wonder" (which I have also read). Highly recommended.

P.S.

Because of the coincidence of names, I am reminded of another science fiction writer, Robert L. Forward, who is sadly no longer with us. A physicist who really knew what he was talking about, his stories could make hard science a fascinating subject for anyone. His death in 2002 was a great loss, but his books live on.


If you're interested...

[A fascinating introduction to Cellular Automata: Conway's Game of Life]
[My books page (science fiction section)]


It's a long time since I read a book as enjoyable as this one. Its style reminds me of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, being told as a series of spirited letters and involving a love of books. Its scope is wider, though, with a much larger cast and a much bigger main story, namely the occupation of the island of Guernsey by the Germans in WWII.

Like most of its readers (who in some way become honorary members of the Society), I fell in love with the characters and didn't want the book to end.

Thanks so much to Alison for this recommendation... and if you like reading, check out all of Alison's book-related posts which you will find here (I like people who use tags!).


If you like this...

[My books page]