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

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.

Mar 142014

Muumilaakson MarraskuuThe last of the Moomin books, Muumilaakson Marraskuu was even more of a disappointment than the previous novel in the series.

This time the whole Moomin family is absent, and the house is occupied by a motley crew of variously damaged misfits.

The soul-searching motif is even stronger in the last volume, but the roles of unknown characters who couldn’t even live together was hard to comprehend as a child.

On a re-read some three decades afterwards the book is far more interesting.

The melancholy of the fall pervades everything, and the missing Moomins are the Godot-class plot device that everybody expects to fix their particular maladies: loneliness, obsession, delusion are just some of the struggles the characters face.

As the november is the darkest and bleakest month in Finland, it is an excellent frame for the characters lost in themselves and/or the world.

This is not an easy book (apart from its length), but it does form a nice capstone for the Moomin-saga.

Mar 142014

How Would You Move Mount Fuji?How Would You Move Mount Fuji? covers the surprisingly interesting topic of recruitment puzzles.

Puzzles that are mostly used to check whether a candidate is able and willing to logically present the chain of thought towards an answer. While a lot of the tasks covered are indeed Fermi problems, there’s plenty of other logical and illogical questions to answer.

The puzzles are the meat and bones of the book, the history and psychology of the question as weeding factor form an introduction to the choicest parts.

When Google headhunted me for a job in Zürich back in 2008 I had a few questions lobbed at me during the interviews. None of them were familiar from the book, though. Nokia’s approach, on the other hand, was the traditional “what’s the next symbol in the series”.

Recommended if you’re interested in puzzles, but unlikely to give much of a hand in getting recruited.

Mar 122014

Aurinkokunta UusiksiSince the previous book on solar system, there’s been plenty of changes, and Aurinkokunta Uusiksi provides a very readable overview.

This time it’s not only planets (and the loss of Pluto as one), but comets, asteroids and dwarf planets get plenty of action too.

But the planets get the best photographs by far.

Aurinkokunta Uusiksi is the best of the three Ursa-published books, but that’s mainly on the subject material. Though the text itself flows very pleasantly, too.

I learned a lot (like that several planets now have 60+ moons) and picked up interesting links to even more information.

Mar 112014

Void MoonI took Michael Connelly’s Void Moon from the bookshelf expecting to be lightly entertained with a decent pace and some twists. And I sure got that.

Void Moon is not part of his series (Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller), it’s a fully independent novel that partially strays from Connelly’s beloved L.A.

But he doesn’t stray too far. Only to Las Vegas. Some crimes do not stay there, but cause splash waves felt in the neighboring states, too.

The plot begins simply, but gathers both speed and complexity during the four hundred-ish pages it takes to run to a conclusion.

Flashbacks reveal the backstory slowly, and the descriptions of the tools of the trade provide a nice Ocean’s 11-vibe to the proceedings. The capstone is the heist itself, narrated at length and with a more than visible undertow of menace below the surface.

Mar 112014

Art of InnovationTom Kelley’s Art of Innovation was pretty much as expected.

War stories from the history of one of the most celebrated design studios: IDEO.

While the descriptions of past projects are mostly interesting, the book (as expected) doesn’t deliver the golden goose egg. The art of innovation is indeed art, and cannot be industrialized. Experimentation and prototyping, a freely operating wide-ranging project team and deep customer involvement are all important, but the mix and application of the combination varies wildly between successful projects.

Insightful, that’s for sure, quickly read as a bonus – Kelley writes effortlessly and entertainingly.

Mar 092014

Muumipappa ja MeriI distinctly recall being sorely disappointed in Muumipappa ja Meri as a kid.

What I thought would be another rollicking Moomin adventure – lighthouse, storms, shipwrecks – turned out almost anything but.

This book marks the wateshed of the series, from here on there would be lots of philosophy and introspection, and the summery action scenes would be faded out.

Muumipappa ja Meri fronts the usual suspects, but in strangely damaged roles. The four protagonists all degrade into their own worlds, on account of sense of duty, disappointment or loneliness, and as such the book covers the bleak reality of the family rapidly growing apart on the secluded island.

Even if the book itself is far from the delights of the preceding volumes, it’s an important book – it proves that everybody has to ultimately discover and face oneself, even if the process and results of doing so are uncertain, and possibly even unpleasant.

Upon re-reading, some thirty years later, I’m no longer disappointed in the novel, but impressed. The theme of self-discovery is subtly introduced, and then hammered home.

Mar 082014

Engineering InfinityI bought Engineering Infinity, an anthology of hardish science fiction short stories based on the authors contained within: Charles Stross, Hannu Rajaniemi and Stephen Baxter.

The subjects of the stories and the overall quality varies a lot.

As does the amount of hardness. Some revel in technology whereas some are far squishier (zen beer is a decent concept, but doesn’t really fly).

And the setting. Some are set just off the present, whereas others are in far enough future that it’s almost impossible to distinguish from fantasy.

Sadly, the quality is far from even, too. Some stories are diamonds, but there’s plenty of rough, too. Stross’ tale is off the Neptune’s Children-continuum which is not a favorite of mine by any means, Rajaniemi’s tale is self-contained and interesting. Of the others Peter Watts’ and Karl Schroeder’s come out on top.

Mar 082014

Case HistoriesSaw a rather glowing recommendation for Kate Atkinson’s mystery novels, and purchased the first of the Jackson Brodie books from a sale.

And Case Histories doesn’t disappoint. While it’s not good enough to cause insta-purchasing the rest of the series, it’s reason enough to keep an eye out for the later books.

Case Histories contains multiple quite loose plotlines that mostly connect at and by the protagonist. But a lot of the connections happen in the readers’ heads, as the book is told using multiple viewpoints and timeframes.

Case Histories is not a procedural novel – it’s more concerned with the characters than the evidence. And it does cover a wide swath of characters, most of whom feel a lot more alive than one trick pony cardboard cutouts so common in the genre.

The debut novel starts out well, builds the interconnections even better and then ends on an unconvicing note.

But that’s a minor demerit on a mystery this strong overall.

Mar 082014

TaikatalviTaikatalvi does not feature a natural disaster, for a change. Though Moomintroll does experience a massive change: winter, the namesake of the novel.

Taikatalvi begins as a traditional adventure story, but soon evolves into something much more.

Themes such as otherness, loneliness, questioning assumed authority and the need to belong underlie the snowy misadventures. And quite a few things are kept as mysteries, unexplainable to the reader.

Unlike the previous Moomin novels, Taikatalvi is not that warm a book (to crack a terrible pun). The protagonist is a stranger, even an outsider in the world he hasn’t seen before. And while he’s not ostracized, he’s by no means welcomed heartily either.