Jun 302014

Epitaph in RustEpitaph in Rust, the second novel by Tim Powers continues on the pulpy path plowed by the debut.

There’s plenty of similar things between the two early novels, but they are so different from each other that no-one could really blame the author for getting stuck in a groove.

Epitaph in Rust is an even-higher-concept novel than The Skies Discrowned – a post-apocalyptic but mostly functional L.A. where the mayor rules with the assistance of androids.

The protagonist gets dropped into the chaos of South California from a monastery, thus his exploration of the weirdness doesn’t feel totally artificial. The plotting is tight, and doesn’t sacrifice too many pages to exposition. Many things are just taken at face value, without explaining how they came to be or changed.

Epitaph in Rust is a rollicking ride, enjoyable and pleasantly short, with a couple of good passages and ideas hiding among the chaff. It is less of a boys own adventure novel than the debut, but a long stretch from the literary delicacies Powers has repeatedly offered in his later novels.

Apr 272014

Beggar's BanquetI picked Beggar’s Banquet, an Ian Rankin short story anthology off a sale, and used it as commuting book for a couple of days (as the length of the pieces is just optimal for a couple per ride).

The collection covers quite a stretch. Some of the stories are from the earliest stages of the author’s career, and appropriately rough, whereas others are far more polished.

About a third of the stories feature Rebus, Rankin’s headliner protagonist, and those stories tend to be on the better side of the watershed in the anthology.

There’s couple of highlights, but all in all the brief form doesn’t really suit Rankin’s style. The plots tend to be too simple to be really enjoyable. It’s no big surprise that the longest story, Death is not the End, is actually the best of the bunch.

At least one of the stories (Herbert in Motion) has been expanded to a full novel (Doors Open), but with plenty of subplots heaped on the main plotline.

And the titular Rolling Stones album does get a namecheck in one of the worst of the bunch.

Not really recommended except for Rankin completists.

Apr 272014

The Skies DiscrownedI’ve been a regular Tim Powers fanboy ever since a fateful Dave Langford review in White Dwarf pointed me towards Anubis Gates. I picked up a doubleheader of his early works ages ago, and finally read the two novels almost back-to-back.

The Skies Discrowned is Powers debut, and it’s both a beautifully simple science fiction adventure and a foreshadow of things to come.

The book is indeed a low-science adventure (almost a non-magic fantasy novel for much of its length), that establishes the milieu with a couple of effective paragraphs and then pumps the throttle. There’s plenty of swordplay, there’s an underground secret society, there’s maiming of the protagonist, there’s references to classic poetry, all themes that crop up in the author’s later works.

But there’s very little layering, no sequential plot-twisting big reveals – this is a simple adventure, not a serious to be dissected at length.

It’s a decent, brief ride, but by no means to get acquainted with the author.

Apr 272014

Republic of ThievesIt took Scott Lynch far longer to finish the third book in the Gentleman Bastard sequence than he planned, and the difficult gestation is occasionally visible in the released book.

Republic of Thieves took an extra four years to write according to the original schedule. But illness, divorce and depression tend to wreck the best-laid plans.

Republic of Thieves continues directly where the previous installment left off, with the protagonist leftally poisoned and their fortunes badly faded.

Desperation leads to an unhealthy employmemt, with the goal of rigging an election with subterfuge.

But this being a Locke Lamora-book, things are far from simple. The opposing crew mounts a counterattck at their electoral shenanigans. And the plot is run in two parallel timelines: one in the present, the other in the past. This time the result of the plotlines’ intersection is pretty much known from the beginning, which saps the power of the plot device considerably.

The world-building remains convincing, the characters head and shoulders above their fantasy brethren and the plot is an interesting change from the more straight-laced thievery in the previous novels.

Nonetheless, the book is quite uneven – at times it feels forced and stretched out, long sequences give the impression of being nothing but fillers.

And while the introduction of a Destiny for Locke doesn’t need retroactive continuity (having been left vague in the opening, anyway), it brings the book a few nudges closer to standard fantasy. Which may be a bad thing or not, the theme is a minor one in this book, so the jury is still out.

All in all I was pleased with the book. Its arrival cements that the author is not giving up, and despite the lulls in the plotting, there’s a lot of the old magic left. And obviously the finale of the book promises a lot more action in the next in the sequence.

Apr 072014

Minä Zlatan Ibrahimović

The second book I finished in 2014 was a far more entertaining read than the dour Sagan classic. Minä Zlatan Ibrahimović is the autobiography of one of the greatest contemporary footballers (and definitely the loudest one).

The first pages prove the Zlatan pulls no punches – he essentially reduces celebrated Barça legend to a clueless spectator, and doesn’t let down the attitude for the next few hundred.

After the news-threshold breaking introduction the book settles down to chronologically lay out Zlatan’s progress into the finest teams in Europe.

The story of a Rosengård kid could have gone wrong on so many axis – a broken family, a wild youth and semi-criminal interests could have so easily ended up in a tragedy.

But they did not. Zlatan struck lucky, and to prove how much it means, the story of Tony Flygare provides a nice counterpoint. He missed one crucial penalty kick and essentially sank his career.

Zlatan’s career starts in Malmö and he hits big time first in Ajax. But keeps on moving from team to team, succeeding in all of them. Despite the constant heroics Zlatan comes off as a human, full of self-doubt, his own worst critic. A human with many faults and a superhuman skill in scoring goals and winning. The book describes far fewer feuds than expected. That is, feuds with other players. Journalists and managers get a broadside of abuse (which in most cases seems quite well-deserved).

From their days in Inter, Zlatan holds an odd fascination with Mourinho, possibly the case of two hard-headed individuals mutual respect for each other.

I hadn’t realized how many teams (and leagues) Zlatan had dominated, apart from the English Premier League he’s struck gold in all the majors.

Too bad Sweden is out of the 2014 games, as Zlatan’s career as #10 is unlikely to survive intact into the 2018 World Cup.

Man kan ta en kille från Rosengård
Men man kan inte ta Rosengård från en kille

Lagercrantz, the author, has succeeded where many would have failed.
The book is well-written, rapid paced and authentically sounding – probably a great book to attract boys to read more.

The attached video – the first video attachment in a book review in this blog – proves the audacity of Zlatan on the field, a casual demolition of England, where he scored all the four goals for Sweden, including this beauty:

Apr 062014

Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkCarl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World was hoisted upon me with the statement “you WILL like this”.

And I certainly did.

The book seemingly starts off as an intellectual scientific-method praising mega-debunko-rama, but that is a false impression.

Sagan doesn’t aggressively judge the people falling foul of hoaxes and pseudo-science, he sets off to educate the world to eliminate the possibility of such play. It’s more humane to say that healthy skepticism is the gist of understanding rather than attacking their entire belief system.

The array of the topics covered is large, and the chapters mostly short. Nonetheless, the author falls into a trap of repetition, not often and usually painlessly, but the book suffers a little as a result.

Demon-Haunted World is over ten years old, but its message is as pointful as it was when released. The rise of the internet and social media have proven much more effective vehicles for deception than disproving the deceivers.

His baloney detection kit is as necessary today as it was back when the book was written in the mid-nineties.

Apr 062014

Omertan LiittoOmertan Liitto, the annual Ilkka Remes techno-thriller embarks into a new direction with the familiar tools.

This time the plot concerns the murky origins of the European Union and the utterly unknown massive cash flows around the federation.

The plot itself borders on flimsy at times, whereas the characters have already crossed into the realms of implausibility.

Nonethelss, the book flows well, and mixed in with the chases is plenty of mostly unforced exposition on the fathers of the union in the fifties. Didn’t really check deep into the list of sources in the appendix, but it seems that there’s a lot that doesn’t withstand scrutiny or even daylight.

The author has been quite uneven lately. Some of the books are as tightly wound and imaginative as his first few novels, whereas others read as parodies of the genre and the authors’ mannerisms. Omertan Liitto is closer to the former, fortunately.

Apr 062014

Red Seas Under Red SkiesRed Seas Under Red Skies, the sequel to Lies of Locke Lamora, begins like the book everybody expected it to be, a quickly written cash-in copy of the original.

Initially the big con consumes the plot, but the book quickly turns to a far wider milieu, the open sea.

The protagonist duo are forced into piracy, and the buccaneering life takes up more than a half of the book.

That change, the education of the landlubbers, and the multiple kinds of complications rapidly reveal that Red Skies Under Red Skies is far from a carbon copy of the first Lamora novel. The city state of Tal Verrar is not as well realized as Camorr in the original, but that’s fair as a lot of the action occurs elsewhere.

As with the original, the best plans do not survive encounters with reality, but the planning and the resulting reactionary work is a wonder to read. Apart from the protagonists, most of the characters do not receive much development in the course of the five hundred pages, but they do not feel like cardboard cutouts. The narrative is again sliced into multiple intertwined plotlines, initially confusing, but converging to a satisfactoy conclusion towards the end.

The second book in the Gentlemen Bastards sequence is not as good as the first, but a very good heist novel nonetheless. After all, the debut was a hard act to follow.

Apr 062014

Hat Full of SkyHat Full of Sky is Terry Pratchett’s sequel to Wee Free Men.

Despite trying hard, it falls short of the original: the main plot is oddly long-winded, the B-plots feel like fillers, quite a few of the characters cliched and the grand finale is anything but grand. In a kids book all but the first are obviously more or less excusable, and there is hidden depth in the proceedings nonetheless. The Nac Mac Feegle are a feature of the series now (having been sighted in the adult side of the fence, too), and their background and characteristics remain interesting.

Not bad by any means, but a noticeable in dip the quality anyway.

Apr 052014

Wee Free MenI re-read Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett’s second young adult novel after I figured I hadn’t touched the later volumes in the series.

And of a re-read the book remains pleasant. It’s obviously written for kids, but is neither watered down nor condescending.

The plot itself covers a lot of ground in less than three hundred pages (a lesser author could easily have pumped it up to a bloated trilogy) and as a bonus comes with a whole new species of faeries – Nac Mac Feegle, the titular wee free men, who dropkick their way into the brains of readers.

The book is could easily be mistaken for a bildungsroman, except for the fact that the protagonist is pretty well-defined in the beginning and only deepens during the pages. The proto-witch shows excellent initiative in protecting what needs to be protected, without ever even teetering on being an annoying superheroine.

Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it?”
“No, actually it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”

Bring on the later volumes, this was a true delight, head and shoulders above the not-so-good Adult Discworld novels.

Apr 022014

Witcher logoThe Witcher saga’s translation seemed hopelessly stalled, with years piling on the last volume published.

However, the success of the video games seems to have turned the tide, and two new volumes have appeared within months of each other.

Then again, having read the first non-anthology volume some five years ago, it’s a good time to restart the whole sequence.

Apr 022014

ExistenceDavid Brin’s Existence is his second thick story of the first alien encounter in a strangely familiar near future (the first, obviously, was Earth).

This time the story begins in a way familiar from quite a few other novels: the arrival of an unquestionably alien artifact. Though this is no Rama, no Eon – this is an appropriately modernized version of projecting alien knowledge into other solar systems.

The cast of characters is vast. Some members of the ensemble feature on a regular basis throughout the length of the novel, whereas others are given a single chance to shine or make a point.

The milieu of our planet strangely less well-developed than that of Earth, but nonetheless fascinating. The characters eking out an existence in regions teetering on ecological collapse are the most interesting ones in the mix. The language, especially in the color pieces, occasionally feels too artifical to engage, but it mostly stays credible. As with Earth, whose technological forecasts occurred decades earlier than projected, I’m sure that at least some of the most fat-fetched elements of the world will sneak into our reality soon enough.

Existence is worthwhile, but not effortless. Some sequences are jarring and ponderous, but mostly the text flows pleasantly well. The quantum shift in the end sequence feels alien, even more so than that of Earth. Though this time it’s executed far better.

Brin’s proven that he can still write fiction, I sincerely hope will he return to the sundered galaxies of uplift soon. From the subplot of artifically evolved dolphins, it’s clear that he’s not done.

Bonus point for a lenticular cover, it’s been a long while since the previous one.

Mar 242014

Once You're Lucky, Twice You're GoodSarah Lacy Hensley’s Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good provides another view into the entrepreneurship in the Silicon Valley from Launch Pad.

It takes a longer view, and concentrates on just a handful of companies and their founders.

The author very occasionally lapses into hero worship, but mostly this is a distanced take on the subject. Though namedropping is unavoidable, it quickly gets tedious.

Some interviews subjects and positions are familiar, and in most cases the years since publication have changed the covered companies significantly.

Learned quite a bit, especially on how easy it is to get screwed by investors and shareholders.

But I would have wanted to read more about the not-so-successful companies, too. And of people who are not part of the obviously powerful insider clique of the Valley.

Mar 232014

The Beer BookThe Beer Book shows off Dorling Kindersley’s high production values.

The book is nicely laid out, but hopelessly uneven.

The multi-author approach shows wide gaps between the regions. Some are boring and little more than regutgitated marketing brochures, whereas others actually contain interesting tidbits about the countries, breweries and their products.

Strangely enough, the more tradition-laden a country is, the more boring the chapter.

Hence it’s no surprise that United States, as the flag carrier of inspired craft brewing gets the most readable section. They’ve clearly got one of the better authors and the wildly imaginative brewers get proper exposure. As a contrast the chapters on Germany and Czech republic are genuine snoozefests.

I expected lots more on history. Of both the drink and its producers. Like important breweries now gone or merged. Now they are haphazardly referenced in the per-brewery entries, and a holistic approach is absent.

And I certainly expected even more on beer styles. The coverage is sparse and uneven and again, there is not even a list of commonly agreed beer styles and variants.

Homebrewing is also left out, which is odd, since the barrier of entry is low indeed.

As a moral bonus, Finland fares decently in the main body of the book, though obviously the selection covers the boring mainstream euro lagers, too.

Mar 182014

Lies of Locke LamoraEvery once in a while something so good comes up that inevitably causes rampant gushing and attempted indoctrination of friends. The debut novel of Scott Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora, is one such book.

The first story in the Gentlemen Bastard-sequence operates on two narratives – describing the early years of the protagonist and an ambitious con that he runs, respectively. Locke Lamora is indeed a criminal mastermind, whose adventures bring to mind the best con and heist movies, there isn’t that much to compare in the realm of literature.

The plotting is imaginative, the milieu pleasantly low-magic and low-cliche, dialogue regularly reaches Whedonian heights and all in all the book just refuses to let go. The city of Camorr has a long and variously unpleasant history, which is mostly shown, not told. And that remains true across the book – instead of spouted exposition the descriptions of the world and its inhabitants are weaved into the story, not nailgunned to its side.

The characters come off the pages well-rounded, and Lynch isn’t afraid to bump them off when the laws of drama require a sacrifice. One key character is referred to almost in passing, certainly foreshadowing a much more important role in the planned future volumes.

An extremely impressive debut, imaginative across multiple axis. And a debut that creates a whole new genre: heist fantasy (in which there sadly isn’t that much competition).

The sequel arrived quickly, but the third volume didn’t, it took almost six years to get published. And in the weeks before it arrived, I re-read the preceding novels. This was as good as I remembered, and like the best of cons, it reveals a lot more on the second reading.

Mar 182014

ParantajaBought Parantaja as a chance purchase from the semi-annual crazy days-sale. The noirish dystopia was interesting, the book was on the thin side and the Johtolanka-award was an indication that this ought to be better than pulp.

The advertised dystopia turned out to be more than just a thin veneer. The world has crashed and flooded, and Helsinki is no longer a nice place to be (those who can are migrating up north).

The 200-ish pages turn quickly, since the plot packs a punch, too. It’s a bit predictable, but that’s not a sin in my books. The characters are built with both depth and baggage (improbable connections, but that’s par for the genre).

There’s plenty of hallmarks of the genre: desperation, things continuosly spinning out of control, deadlines to achieve the impossible, opposition that gives no quarter.

And obviously there’s big problems in the collapsing civilization, but that’s scenery, like Casablanca, not something to be corrected by a handful of amateurs.

Overall Parantaja emits a Children of Men-ish vibe. This would be an awesome movie in right hands, and an absolutely terrible in wrong hands.

Parantaja was much better than anticipated, and will certainly keep an eye open for the author’s other books.

Mar 172014

The Launch PadThe Launch Pad is Randall Stross’ book on life in the Y Combinator, the most celebrated accelerator in Silicon Valley. Y Combinator has launched quite a few major success stories during its eight years of existence: Dropbox and Airbnb being the most famous of its crop.

The author spent a cycle of acceleration with a bunch of companies, and provides insight into what the quarterly program expects and provides to the companies.

Lesson #1 from the book is that Y Combinator clearly invests in teams, not products, as several of the selected nascent companies undergo severe pivoting during their stay in the accelerator.

Launch Pad tells plenty of war stories – both of the companies undergoing acceleration during Stross’ tenure as well as of the seeder’s and its earlier members’ histories.

The proceedings seem unusually restrained, there are no massive rifts or other struggles described. Which is hard to believe considering the pressures the teams operate under.

The most interesting company utilized as an extended example is MongoHQ whose product is used by multiple of their stablemates.

The Launch Pad is unashamedly American and Californian – while there are foreign members, they are pretty much exceptions to the unwritten rules. Sadly, there’s nothing of similar magnitude and usefulness available domestically.

The retrospect at the tail end of the book is interesting – the stories on the companies evolution and success beyond the closure of their acceleration round proves that nothing is ever guaranteed in the world of startups.

This was the first book by Randall Stross I read, and as the text was lively and entertaining while not too distant from the technical facts, I’ll definitely try out his other books, too.

Mar 162014

Rabbit ReduxConsidering how much I liked the original Rabbit novel, it took quite a while before moving on to the sequel.

Rabbit Redux happens a decade later than Rabbit, Run. And things certainly have changed during the intervening years. Where the Harry Angstrom of the original was a self-centered git who couldn’t either commit nor accept anything but the best, he’s now stuck in a dead end-job.

The stolid existence is shattered by a very sixties action – his wife leaves. Very publicly.

Obviously shaken, his life gets more and more complicated by the pages turning. The plot veers towards improbability on several occasions, but the actions of a domestically shellshocked man are hard to estimate.

The framing historical events, especially the moon landing, are pushed to the forefront a lot more aggressively than in the original. But unlike a lot of period pieces, it never crosses the annoyance-threshold. The themes of the era: free love and black power are rubbed in forcefully.

Rabbit doesn’t run nearly as well as he did ten years before, but I will nonetheless pick up the third volume in the sequence.

Mar 162014

Muumit ja Olemisen ArvoitusI approached Muumit ja Olemisen Arvoitus as an explanatory book, fully expecting it to dissect the characters, themes and subtexts of the Moominvalley stories.

Which it doesn’t.

For the most part the book concentrates in applying classic existentialist philosophers thinking to the Moomins.

Interesting, no doubt, but not what I came for.

Fulfilled my Kierkegaard-quota by page 30, fortunately the book wasn’t a thick one.

Mar 162014

Apocalypse CodexIn the fourth Laundry novel, Apocalypse Codex, Bob Howard continues his bureaucracy-plagued work against horrors beyond time and space.

Though as this part is set in United States, the domestic pencil pushers remain in a lesser role.

Apocalypse Codex has a titillating premise: a television evangelist up to no good. Combined with a pair of interestingly crafted sidekicks, the protagonist takes on the preacher with extreme prejudice.

The scariest bit is left undescribed. Or left to the readers to visualize. And squirm.

The Modesty Blaise in disguise-assistant will return in the future – she’s too much of a character / plot device to ignore.

There’s nothing truly new in Apocalypse Codex, it follows a proven formula and executes its plot entertainingly.

Mar 162014

Fuller MemorandumThe main reason behind re-reading the Laundry novels before embarking on the newest in the series was the sad realization that I had little recollection what happens in volume three. Fuller Memorandum is a complex novel, and one of its main plotlines shakes up the organization severely.

The book is again darker than its predecessor, and the fact that it is told in seriously past tense lends gravity to the proceedings already from the prologue.

However, the weariness of the protagonist has affected the author, too, since at times the text does not flow as smoothly as it could, and it occasionally feels strained. Especially with the rather tired exposition through letters-scheme feels long-winded, and the multiple converging lines of investigation are probably realistic but on the surface a bit confusing. But the bright parts outshine the not so good easily – the secret history of the Royal Air Force and the related initial exorcism as well as the pyramid scenes are easily worth the price of admission.

A solid sequel to Jennifer Morgue and and an even foundation for future volumes.

Mar 152014

Jennifer MorgueThe second Laundry book, Jennifer Morgue is a real novel and as such quite an improvement over the first installment in the series.

This time Bob Howard is up against a Bond-supervillainesque adversary, obviously with a Cthuloid twist to the character.

Sadly, some of the more technological exposition has acquired a scarily condescending, almost userfriendly-like vibe. But apart from that (fortunately absent in the other parts) both the text and the dialogue are vastly improved from Atrocity Archives.

The occult agency remains fascinating, and this tale proves that there’s both depth and variety in it. At times the obligatory Bond girl feels a lot more complex and entertaining than the protagonist.

The short story Pimpf is included in the book, it packs far less punch than the main event, but is moderately entertaining in itself. Were I a MMORPG-player, its impact would probably be quite a bit bigger.