Review of The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

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I nearly didn’t pick this one off the shelves on the grounds that it looked a tad weird – and recently I’ve read some pseudo-philosophical science fiction that had me wanting to batter my head against a brick wall… But when I saw it was an Angry Robot offering, I grabbed it – and I’m very glad I did.

lives of taoWhen out-of-shape IT technician Roen Tan woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it. He wasn’t. He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes. Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

And that’s the blurb. I really enjoyed this one. As well as providing plenty of thrills and spills, Roen’s painful conversion to a fit, muscle-bound action man is just that – painful. And that’s fine with me. We all know just how hard it is to lose weight and get fit – if it was easy we’d all be doing it at the drop of a hat, so I do get a bit fed up when fictional characters run around a track a couple of times, with a personal trainer yelling in their ear and in the following chapter they’re now sleekly fit and raring to go. Chu really puts Roen through the wringer – and like watching many painful conversions, it includes plenty of funny moments along the way.

Roen is a great character – I liked his panic during his first firefight, his fear before assignments and that he grumbles constantly when he’s bored and cold and feels very intimidated by all the black-clad agents around him. He is far more the sort of hero I can understand and empathise with… I also liked the fact that he is tongue-tied and clumsy around his female trainer – and that Tao has to train him word for word when he wants to ask a particular girl out. The relationship between Tao and Roen steadily grows throughout the book and I every much enjoyed the bumps along the way.

As well as Tao and Roen’s narrative, we also have an insight into the opposition in the form of Chivya, who loathes Tao and is driven by his own ambition to get a seat on the Genjix Council and a desire to defeat the Prophus. The world is chillingly depicted, with the aliens battling for supremacy, and in addition to being responsible for our development, they have also been the cause of most of the major wars that have blighted our history. It’s a neat twist, with many world leaders inhabited by a Quasing. It’s been done before, of course – but I enjoyed this particular version. Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable tale with plenty of action, some humour and an entertaining premise keeping it all rolling forward at a good clip. I look forward to reading the sequel, The Deaths of Tao and have definitely marked Wesley Chu as One to Watch with this impressive debut novel.
8/10

Moments, Moments, Immortal Moments

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sjhigbee:

This is a wonderful celebratory piece about what I label in my head ‘golden times’ – those slices that stand out in your memory. As you read it, perhaps you, too, will recall some of your special times and what triggered them…

Originally posted on The Immortal Jukebox:

Sometimes it might take just a single beat of your heart. A lightning strike seared into your memory: something really crucial has happened and whatever happens from now on it will be in the shadow of this! Maybe it’s the first time alone together when she called you by your name and it felt like a new christening. Or the time your toddling son folded his hand into yours without thinking as he looked for stability and security on the road ahead.

Sometimes it might take years; the slowly dawning realisation, (like a photograph emerging from the darkroom) that it was that moment, that event, which seemed so trivial at the time, where a new course was set that’s led you to your current harbour.

Moments, moments, moments. Our lives in our imaginations and memories are never a complete coherent narrative but rather a silvery chain of moments: some cherished…

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Film Review of District 9

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While my friend Mhairi Simpson was laid up after coming off her bike last week, we had the good luck to encounter this film, courtesy of the good ol’ Syfy channel. As Mhairi hadn’t seen it, I was very glad to have an excuse to watch it again.

District 9Released in 2009 by TriStar Pictures and directed by Neill Blomkamp, this science fiction thriller is set in the very near future, when a huge space ship appears in the sky over Johannesburg in South Africa. And just hangs there. Three months later, a task force eventually breaks into the ship to find it contains around half a million sick and starving aliens. Transported to a camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the aliens are provided with food and the most primitive, rudimentary basics required for existence and left to get on with it. They do.

Living in squalor, they barter whatever they can for tins of cat food and pieces of meat. Inevitably, illegal interest in their technology is centred around their impressive weaponry. Despite the fact that humans cannot activate these lethal pieces of kit as they are keyed to alien DNA, a Nigerian crimelord based in the centre of District 9 is busy building up an arsenal. He is convinced that if he consumes enough alien body parts, he will eventually be able to activate these guns which will give him an unassailable advantage in the human criminal underworld.

The years wear on and the alien population continues to grow, despite their revolting living conditions. Ill educated and brutalised by their bleak existence, the aliens – or Prawns, as they come to be known – don’t make comfortable neighbours and the humans living alongside them become increasingly vociferous in their complaints. So some twenty years after they first appeared, a scheme is hatched to move the aliens on from District 9, where they have been living, to District 10 – a barren hellhole right out in the bush. The move is to be overseen by a tough military organisation, the MNU, who go in mob-handed with an enthusiastic Afrikaner office jock by the name of Wikus van de Merwe played brilliantly by Sharlto Copley. However, things don’t go according to plan…

The timeline is fractured, with much of the backstory very effectively told as a documentary, first of the alien roundup and then of the more district 9unfolding events. The wobbly camera-work, abrupt stops and various narrators giving their thoughts and opinions on what occurred is very cleverly interleaved with the visceral action.

It doesn’t take a genius to quickly realise that this film is more than just an escapist junket about yet another alien visitation. The proposed clear-out of District 9 is based on the forced evictions and removals of whole populations, both during the South African apartheid years and since, when in an attempt to dislodge some of the shanty towns that had built up during apartheid, the government have resorted to the kinds of tactics shown in this film. The less than subtle nod to recent history – District 9 in reality was the infamous District 6, where 60,000 blacks were forced to move out – gives the action extra emotional punch. This is echoed in the haunting soundtrack, which plays as aliens are shown scrabbling around on rubbish tips…

However, I don’t want you to go away with the impression that this is just some neo-political rant about man’s inhumanity to man. This film also produces plenty action-packed chases, fire fights and destructive explosions to keep the most avid action-junkie satisfied. I loved the ending – which managed to be moving and tie up the main story arc, while conveniently leaving the door open for the sequel. And if this team get together to produce said sequel, I’m definitely going to be right up at the front of the queue to see it at the cinema. An intelligent, thought provoking science fiction thriller that exposes humanity’s greed and brutality in an entertaining action-fest doesn’t come along every day of the week…
9/10

Thoughts On the Hugo Awards, 2014

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sjhigbee:

I’ve been following some of the LonCon doings on Twitter, wishing I was there… But in the wake of the 2014 Huge Awards ceremony I thought I’d do the next best thing and reblog John Scalzi’s thoughts on the whole thing. Congratulations to everyone who won!

Originally posted on Whatever:

In no particular order (and for reference, the winners are here):

1. I am super-delighted that the Hugo Best Novel Award went to Ancillary Justice. One, because it’s fantastic, but two, because I feel entirely unwarranted pride in Ann Leckie’s career, because I gave her her first professional sale, and was delighted to give AncillaryJustice a blurb for when it came out. I had nothing to do with the book’s success, other than receive the pleasure of letting people know I thought it was great. I’m still super proud of its clean sweep of the major SF/F awards, and of Ann. This is just great.

2. I’m also giggling that Charlie Stross name-checked me and Lou Anders when he won for Equiod; I remember that fateful night in Denver in 2008, when the messy seeds of that story were planted with two words, the two words being…

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On Birthing Books: Breathing Space

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A bit of context – I am an avid reader, I teach Creative Writing at Northbrook College in Worthing, West Sussex and I write. I’ve been writing for what seems like forever and while I have written the occasional short story and poem, I write mostly science fiction novels.

Sarah writingBreathing Space is the third book in a trilogy I started with Running Out of Space about 19-year-old Jezell Campo, the daughter of an Iberian merchanter who yearns to serve on her father’s ship. I wrote RooS, followed fairly quickly by the second book, Dying for Space, as at that point I had a publishing contract for the first book and the publisher was also interested in other books – subject to sales. However things didn’t work out, the publisher and I parted company and the copyright reverted to me before the book got to see the light of day. Instead of going on to write Breathing Space, I started Netted, a post-apocalyptic story set in Maine, as the whole experience with RooS left me feeling a tad raw and disinclined to continue in Jezell’s world.

But after completing Netted and working on an extensive rewrite of another novel, Jezell wouldn’t leave me alone. I liked the idea of writing a science fiction crime series and Jezell seemed the ideal protagonist all set to solve my murders – I even have the plot of the first murder mystery sketched out, along with the working title of the book, Murder in Space… But, of course, Breathing Space needed to be written to complete her story arc up to the point where Jezell starts sleuthing.  I’ve always written organically – but back when I was writing Dying For Space, I had a forest of ideas about how the story arc for Breathing Space should progress. So when I finally started writing the book in mid-May, I had a fairly good idea where the story was going – all I had to do was to get it down.

But it wouldn’t. I restarted Chapter 1 three times – it didn’t help that I was also grappling with Scrivener and it managed to tuck away the first couple of chapters in a dusty corner of my hard drive. I’d read that Dropbox and Scrivener didn’t play nicely together, but hadn’t realised the implications of what that entailed… I stayed up all night looking for the missing work – somehow the backup on my memory stick hadn’t stuck, either – and the missing files popped up suddenly when I’d all but given up searching and was in the process of shutting the computer down in exhausted despair.

I’ve sorted that out now, but still wasn’t happy with the beginning of Chapter 1 and didn’t want to move on, because I’ve learnt from experience that as I always write chronologically, if the start isn’t right, then the wrongness will eventually catch up with me and I’ll hit a brick wall further along the way. There seemed to be an awful lot of narration in Jezell’s voice, telling the reader about slices of her life in the interim – Breathing Space starts three years after Dying for Space ends – and scene setting. I didn’t like it. The other two books were fairly light on looong passages of description and explanation, relying on taking the reader into the scenes as they happened. In comparison, this book seemed a lot flatter and less vivid – even though the opening scenario had plenty of drama.

I read what I’d written, then discussed the problem with my writing group – Sarah Palmer, Geoff Alnutt, Debbie Watkins and Katie Glover – who were all really helpful. They agreed that I needed to cut down on all the explanation, and Sarah suggested I start the story earlier before the first crisis hits Jezell, so we get a sense of her in happier times and I’m not constantly having to refer back to the moment when it actually goes wrong, because the reader shares it… Debbie pointed out that her relationship with her second in command didn’t ring true – there needed to be more of an edge to it. Which made perfect sense – focusing on all the other plotpoints, that was an aspect I’d overlooked. At last, I could rewrite Chapter 1 and make it work.

I’ve still had to curb my tendency to write too much tell instead of show – I’ve currently cut 10,000 words from the manuscript and I’m only on Chapter 13, but I am finally comfortable back in Jezell’s skin.

This has been the hardest novel to start by far – I normally start books very quickly and slow down during the boggy, mid-book bit, accelerating again once I get to Chapters 21/22 when the ending feels within touching distance. So I’m wondering if my normal writing pattern will surface as I continue working.

Has anyone else found it a terrific struggle to start a writing project they thought would be very straightforward? I’d be interested to hear about it, if you have…

Robin Williams: Suicide Is Everywhere

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Robin Williams: Suicide Is Everywhere

sjhigbee:

There’s been a lot written about Robin Williams – but this is the best article I’ve read – so thought I’d share it with you…

Originally posted on Sadie Hasler:

I haven’t really known what to say about Robin Williams.
Almost two days have passed and I haven’t said much more than a sentence about ‘what a shame it is’.

Which is odd because words about suicide usually come easier to me than shopping lists. My Dad killed himself ten years ago, and I’ve almost finished a book about it, and usually, now, I find spewing words about it as natural a part of my day as running a bath or taking the binbags out. I’m like a marine now in the writing about suicide. Through the applied articulation of grief I have written myself ‘well hard’. In fact most of the time I have to stop myself from banging on about death all the time because I don’t want to be a total drag of a loser of a sap of a dick and I am aware that not…

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Review of Skin Game – Book 15 of the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this long-running series – read my review of Turn Coat here and my review of Ghost Story here. So with the fifteenth book in the series, can Jim Butcher continue to sustain the freshness and vitality that is a hallmark of Harry Dresden and his adventures?

Skin GameHarry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, is about to have a very bad day. As Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful. This time, it’s worse than that. Mab’s involved Harry in a smash-and-grab heist run by one of his most despised enemies, to recover a special object from the vaults of the greatest treasure horde in the world – which belongs to the one and only Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Dresden’s always been tricky, but he’s going to have to up his backstabbing game to survive this mess – assuming his own allies don’t end up killing him before his enemies get the chance . . .

So that’s the blurb. The whole book revolves around this particular job that Queen Mab has hauled him into. Harry is only too well aware of just how much he is hated by the person organising this job – but he doesn’t have a choice. As Queen Mab’s Winter Knight, he is forced to represent her.

In order for this book to work, we have to really care about Harry’s plight and get completely caught up in every plot progression. And I did. Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned, this slice of Harry Dresden’s adventures is one of the best in a while. The storyline drew me in from the beginning so that I didn’t want to put it down until the last page – and when I finished, I was sad that a really enjoyable, engrossing time had come to an end. Having said that – I’ve recently been ploughing through a couple of books that were as much fun as jabbing myself in the eye with a sharp pencil, so it was a joy to return to a well-crafted, tale full of unpredictable twists all happening to a character I really cared about.

If you haven’t read any of this long, eventful series, then you could do a lot better than jumping into the middle of Harry’s world by starting off with this book. Which isn’t advice I generally hand out to someone coming across a mid-series book, but in this case I really think it works. Yes – there is a great deal of backstory, but because of the particular structure of Skin Game which is centred around the task Harry has been set, the lack of familiarity with the rest of the canon isn’t much of a disadvantage. What it does, is give you a fantastic introduction to Harry and many of his closest friends and enemies. And once you’ve got to the end of the book, I’ll be very surprised if you don’t rush to grab hold of Storm Front, the first book in this great series.
9/10

Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – Paula Daly

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sjhigbee:

Great review – and if your taste runs to psychological thrillers, then go on reading – Paula Daly has certainly gone onto my TBR list…

Originally posted on Cleopatra Loves Books:

Psychological Thriller 5*'s


Psychological Thriller
5*’s

This is Paula Daly’s debut novel, and boy is this one disturbing tale about a missing child which I had on my TBR for sometime before I read her second novel Keep Your Friends Close.  Having had a taste of the author’s superb writing I dusted off this one and settled down to immerse myself in an extreme domestic drama.

Linda Castillo is your typical harassed mother, juggling children, work and along with the other day to day chores that need to be attended to. When Linda’s daughter Sally is ill and off school, Linda forgets to tell Kate Riverty that her daughter Lucinda won’t be able to stay over as planned. With the sleepover cancelled without warning the consequences are high because Lucinda goes missing and no-one realises until she doesn’t turn up at school the next day.

This is a heart-stopping start to what is…

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Review of Half a Crown – Book 3 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton

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This is the final book in this riveting alternate history series, and my strong recommendation is that if you pick up Half a Crown without reading the other two – don’t. Read my review of Farthing here and Ha’penny here. While Walton has structured each book so that it can be read as a standalone, you will lose a great deal in the narrative progression and some of the nuances Walton has woven into the storyline. She is a subtle writer, who assumes her readers are capable of drawing their own conclusions, without it being necessary for her to spell out every consequence of the scenario she has depicted. And I love the play on words with the title of this particular book – customary Walton sharp cleverness…

Half a crownIn a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… It is the 1960s. Hitler and the Duke of Windsor are among the global leaders who are convening in London to agree the final partition of the world. Inspector Carmichael is now commander of The Watch – Britain’s infamous police force. As endgame approaches, he is forced in a position where there is no going back. Whatever happens now, Carmichael is no longer able to keep up a façade of normality while the English are increasingly subjected to a despotic rule.

And that is – more or less – the blurb. So we have moved on some twelve years since the ending of Ha’penny. Elvira Royston, Inspector Carmichael’s adopted ward, is about to be presented at court as a debutante, so we have the same narrative structure that has worked so well in the previous two books – a dual narrative between Carmichael and his stiff reserve hiding another, forbidden lifestyle, and a younger female protagonist. Elvira does not have the poise and self assurance of either Viola or Lucy, but she is just as feisty. Walton has managed to pull off a tricky issue that could have tripped up a less skilled writer – each of her female protagonists featuring in the trilogy have their own quite separate voices, giving each book a different emotional tone.

It was interesting to note that in this final book, which ramps the climax up to the point of life and death – it starts far more quietly with a longer buildup than the previous two volunes. But as ever, once the action begins, Walton’s stylish, understated prose belies the tension that pings off the page. I was hooked. Despite needing to get up and get going – I was stapled to the book and going nowhere until I found out exactly what would happen next.

The other issue Walton has to consider with this, the third offering in the series, is a sense of predictability. But once it all starts to kick off, I couldn’t work out what would happen next and certainly didn’t see the denouement coming – particularly as Walton doesn’t necessarily have her stories end, ‘and they all lived happily ever after…’ However she produces a fitting and satisfactory conclusion to this fascinating and chilling alternate history series. If your taste runs to this sub-genre, don’t miss it – Walton is one of the most talented fantasy writers producing work today. Whether you agree with her take on this intriguing exploration of an alternate history, or not – I’ll guarantee that Walton’s world will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.
10/10

Review of Reflected – Book 3 of the Silver series by Rhiannon Held

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I really enjoyed the first two books in this series about werewolf society – read my review of Silver here and Tarnished here – would this third novel be as compelling?

reflectedThe were have lived among humans for centuries secretly, carefully. They came to America with the earliest European colonists, seeking a land where their packs could run free. Andrew Dare is a descendant of those colonists, and he and his mate, Silver, have become alpha in the Roanoke pack… the largest in North America. But they have enemies, both within their territory and beyond the sea. Andrew is drawn away to deal with the problem of a half-human child in Alaska, leaving Silver to handle the rest of the pack just as a troublemaker from Spain arrives on the scene.

So one of the main characters had initially drew us into the action is now absent for most of the narrative – would it unbalance the story? Nope. Silver has plenty in the locker to keep this reader absolutely locked into the action. I love her character – Held has given her a strong sense of difference. So instead of Silver merely being a normal woman with occasional wolf behaviour – her were side completely defines who she is and how she reacts to all situations. This is one of the most successful werewolf series I’ve read, because of that sense of difference. The other interesting wrinkle about Silver is that she is compromised – a were who can no longer change into wolf form. So how will she manage to keep control of the pack without Andrew Dare’s lethal skill in fighting and his knack for keeping order?

For that matter, how do females manage a pack when they cannot change during pregnancy? Perhaps females shouldn’t be alphas at all – there are certainly dominant males who believe this. The issue of pack order and dominance is never something you can forget in this book – because it is overriding concern of werewolves in both human and wild form.

Held manages to produce a storyline in this world with these compelling characters that had me hooked right to the end. This entertaining, accomplished read was a cut above most of the werewolf tales I’ve read and a worthy addition to an enjoyable series. If your taste runs to werewolf tales, but you have become fed up with some of the second-rate offerings out there, then track down this series. You’ll thank me if you do.
9/10