Dec 172014

PoliisiJo Nesbø’s Poliisi carries on where the preceding part left off. And the author really milks the awesome cliffhanger for all its worth.

Poliisi continues the themes in several of the previous books, ties a knot on some of them, while leaving a couple still dangling loose. The main plotline, of a serial killer bumping off policemen that have been satisfied with incomplete cases in the past, introduces several potential bad buys, and builds up tension over and over again. As usual, there’s sideplots galore, both on a departmental and personal level.

As expected, there’s plenty of cruelty, questionable law enforcement methods, references to alcoholism, and one truly great plot twist that manages to pull the rug from under the readers’ feet.

A great book, and obviously one that keeps the reader in an vise-like grip until the dust has settled. But this is absolutely the worst book to begin experimenting with the series, I’m sure there’s plenty of impenetrable passages for the novices.

Dec 162014

On WritingStephen King’s On Writing is a book of multiple perspectives. On one hand it is first and foremost an autobiographical look back on the early days of his career, on the other hand he pounds on a concise set of instructions for writing clearly and on the third hand the book describes how the author survived an almost fatal hit by a car.

Of the three, the first is interesting and insightful, but the second is worth the price of admission. King advocates reading a lot and writing a lot. And then simplifying the language until it’s as simple as it needs to be. The instruction is paired with real-life examples which obviusly raises its value quite a bit. The chapters on getting published and dealing with agents seem almost quaint in the era of rampant self-publishing and exposure through social media and virality.

Not my favorite Stephen King book, but definitely better than most of his output.

Dec 152014

AaveAs stated before Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole-sequence brings out the worst voracious reader-habits in me.

The eighth in the series, Aave was no different. I consumed vast chunks of the novel in two days, and came off slightly dazed in the end.

The plot moves on multiple levels once again, and this time the crime touches Harry’s extended family closer than ever before. But that perspective is just one of many in a thick book that once again highlights cruel torture, corruption in the ranks of the officials and the need to make things right.

A perfect recipe for disaster for the protagonist, who has a close call with the reaper several times in the course of the book, and ends up in the hands of the juiciest cliffhanger in a long long while.

Aave is a great book, but doesn’t rise to the heights established by the two preceding Harry Hole-novels. But it’s obviously warmly recommended for all fans of the pseudo-suicidal norwegian policeman.

Dec 142014

Brick By BrickBrick By Brick goes much deeper than the usual fawning Lego as a business case study-books.

For a change, it does not get stuck on the common item #1: the rapid reaction of Lego to Mindstorm-hackers and continued peaceful co-existence. That point is covered, obviously, but it’s only a small detail in the tale told of how the company was almost capsized by clueless management and terrible product choices.

However, a lot of the pages are spent on general business strategy as opposed to analyzing its application in Lego’s case, leading to a slow pace and unfortunate abstraction of the message (though it does get drilled in at the ends of the chapter). The message is indeed muddled – prediction of success in a rapidly moving industry is impossible, but Lego did lower its batting average significantly by making terrible choices and hiring exactly the wrong people.

But all in all the book definitely is a worthwhile one to read, it’s mercifully brief and for a strayed long-time Lego fan, there’s a lot of interesting topics (and abandoned product lines) covered within.

Dec 122014

A Good Old-Fashioned FutureI’ve been a fan of Bruce Sterling’s pretty much as long as I’ve been aware of him. His A Good Old-Fashioned Future is a collection of short stories published in the late nineties.

The seven stories that form this book are of pretty even, high quality. The first highlight amongst them is the Littlest Jackal mainly on account of the plot and the fact that the story is actually set in Finland (with Flüüvins standing in for Moomins). The last three of the novels are semi-connected, and work well both independently and as a description of a world that’s increasingly off the hinges as time passes.

Though the collection is more than a decade old, the future it depicts does not feel outdated, just different.

Dec 112014

Ready Player OneReady Player One was my book of the year in 2012 and re-reading it was a true pleasure.

After all, it’s not often that a book arrives that wallows and revels in geekdom without being patronizing, shallow or in any other way bothersome.

Ready Player One sets out to explore the eighties, from a decidedly geeky viewpoint, but with a great eye for the mainstream culture as well. After all, in those days of the monoculture the mainstream was so ubiquitous even the steadfastest subculture-dwellers had no way to avoid it.

The book is a treasure hunt, a fact that is made obvious from its very beginning. But it’s not a conventional treasure hunt – success requires skill in videogames, memorization of movie dialogue and the ability to thoroughly think outside of the box. A beautiful multi-layered puzzle, that manages to delight and rouse interest as the protagonist stumbles through its labyrinth.

As is common in labours of love, the chase is better than the catch – and the finale of Ready Player One sadly dips from the lofty heights established by the preceding pages. But it does not dip much, and provides good closure on the plot and pretty much cements the fact that no sequel is forthcoming.

The book brims with cultural references – mainly from the eighties, but there’s plenty more. Unsurprisingly, there are multiple pages listing those some with elaborations on their meanings.

Ready Player One was movie-optioned by Sony pretty much instantly, but I’m skeptical about its chances. While the book is free to namedrop and utilize cultural references at every step, actually clearing those films and songs would be a massive undertaking. Also, the book is thick, and the story far from straightforward, hence trying to fit the 400+ pages into a movie of conventional length would require massive alterations.

Dec 102014

Kill DecisionDaniel Suarez made his name with the unexpectedly continued and initially self-published Daemon, one of the savviest technothrillers published in a long while has returned with a self-contained third novel.

Kill Decision utilizes a familiar plot device from the preceding books – but its take on autonomous predatory drones is far more deep-drilling, whereas they were just plot devices in Daemon.

While Kill Decision’s plot drives the book forward like a steamroller, the cast of characters pales in comparison. Motives are vague, and plenty of the characters are little more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. But nobody reads technothrillers for in-depth characterizations, and Suarez once again shines in describing the inner workings of drones – heavily lifting from the sciences of entomology and myrmecology to explain the algorithms developed.

Kill Decision is a great page turner, and heartily recommended for friends of the genre, others will quite likely find the threshold a bit too steep for comfort. Me, I’m looking forward to the arrival of his fourth book, Influx, in paperback.

Dec 092014

The Wasp FactoryThe Wasp Factory, the debut novel by Iain Banks is one I recall seeing in a book club magazine back in the early eighties. The book was billed as a nausea-inducing piece of modern storytelling, and unsurprisingly the characterization was not an endearing one with my parents. So, the clan library was not extended, and it took me way too long to actually get to read the book.

And the hype wasn’t wrong. Even though quarter century has passed and the norms lowered significantly, the Wasp Factory still provokes, prods and while it doesn’t really nauseate (apart from one scene), it consistently brings on the greatest literate unease in a good long while.

To say much of the titular factory, the plot or the characters would be considered spoiling, and I’d much rather everybody discover the multiple layers of truth on Frank, the protagonist who carries more baggage than a freight 747.

Nasty, brutish and short. Not an easy read, but a recommended one nonetheless.

Dec 082014

Getting RealGetting Real is a short anthology of collective wisdom on software development from 37 Signals crew (these days they’re called Basecamp).

Back in the days when I originally bought the book, the contents seemed almost alien to read – so far removed was Nokia’s mode of operations in software. Things got better, but obviously not good enough.

A lot of the topics are covered briefly and provocatively, leading to a somewhat perplexing reading experience – part revelationary, part shameful.

In the era that glorifies the leanness of business, this book was ahead both time-wise and content-wise. The authors pull only a few punches while extolling the virtues of going lean and adaptive.

Dec 072014

Terminal WorldAlastair Reynolds has redeemed himself multiple times over from the disastrous ending of the Revelation Space trilogy.

However, Terminal World had me worried for a while before the wheels started spinning righteously. The mainly low-tech environment and the very gradual exposition took its time to work things out.

But they did.

And what a deliciously good book Terminal World turned out to be.

There’s more cool things here than many other authors manage to fit in industry-sized series. And even when Reynolds packs in zeppelins with flesh-eating cyborgs and layers secrets upon enigmas, the flow of the novel is not impacted. The plot steamrolls towards its inevitable termination, and provides an awesome travelogue all the while.

Just like Century Rain originally proved, the author moves elegantly in genres other than purest hard SF, and here the wonders are piled on relentlessly. And while the ultimate twist towards the end is not that big a surprise, it is nonetheless handled very well and it caps the story appropriately ambiguously.

And just like with Century Rain, what we’ve got is what we’ll get – this slice of the universe will not be explored further in later books.

Nov 292014

Gone GirlSometimes bad things happen to good people.

And sometimes bad things happen to moderately bad people.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is about the latter group of protagonists.
I approached the book, tagged with epithets like “thriller of the year” with care, but came off rather pleasantly surprised.

The author weaves a decent web, with a twisting plot and a set of characters that is not an album of blatant stereotypes.

It’s by no means a literary thrill, but good enough entertainment for a couple of days of commuting.

The big switch is more or less obvious from the very start, but the second half of the book piles on enough tweaks and a finale worth looking beyond the obvious.

A good book, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for the author’s previous works.

Aug 242014

Years of Rice and SaltIn Facebook terms, my relationship with Kim Stanley Robinson would be “complicated”. On one hand the themes and scope of his books tend to be interesting, but the novels themselves too slow-paced and packed with an ensemble of too many characters. I had a hard time with the Mars trilogy, but the weather/D.C. one went down much more easily.

Even if The Years of Rice and Salt was a single volume, it was both impressively thick and covered an ambitiously long stretch of history. Hence I approached it with apprehension.

Years of Rice and Salt describes an alternate history where the plague decimates Europe and the other cultures thrive instead. Obviously the beginning resembles our world closely, but the history indeed turns alternative quickly.

The main narrative device is an odd one – reincarnated characters that meet each other throughout the millennia, vaguely understanding that they have encountered each other previously. The scenes in the various purgatories and other spiritual locations are at rather severe odds with the otherwise moderate plot. At first the device surprises, then it gets annoying and towards the end of the novel (consisting of ten separate periods and clusters of the characters) it’s pretty much par for the course.

The book encompasses the whole world, the evolution of civilization and plenty of conflicts. The perspective varies quite a bit both geographically and ethnographically, but vast stretches of the world (Oceania, once again, expectedly) remain essentially undescribed. The perspective varies also from almost purely personal to scientific discovery, and as such some of the chapters make for much drier reading than the others.

Nowhere near the laborious slog I originally anticipated, Years of Rice and Salt was actually a pleasant book to read. The episodic nature made it a good fit for commuting. More enlightening than entertaining, but a fresh take on the genre of alternate history (this is history from a social perspective as opposed to that of great individuals and nations only).

Aug 122014

For The WinI quite liked Cory Doctorow’s first foray into targeting a younger audience. But his For The Win doesn’t reach the heights attained by Little Brother.

Then again, the subject matter in this book is not as interesting as a geek coming to grips with the effects of ubiquitous overwatch in modern San Francisco.

Nope. For The Win centers on two topics I’m not familiar at all with. I have never played MMO games nor lived in a developing country where the unwashed masses are put to work as farmers of virtual gold for the more well-off western players.

For The Win tackles the subject with an ensemble cast – the issues of the gold farmers are left, right and center of the varied cast. The milieu is a slightly advanced future, the games more than renamed entities of things currently in the market.

The exposition of politics and economics is nowhere near heavy-handed, but neither really works as the carrying arc of the book either. History of unionization has probably never been as entertainingly described as in this book. But this is a book that’s a bit too thick, quite a slow starter and without much of an engaging cast. So in the end, it just isn’t very entertaining a read, after all.

Aug 122014

MicrotrendsI expected Microtrends to be insightful and entertaining. It didn’t really reach either of those targets, but it wasn’t an utter failure either.

The book’s central concept is that population is splintering into so many sub-tribes that it may very well make sense to cater to one of them.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t really explore its central thesis further, but devotes the vast bulk of its pages to outlining said identified groups.

Some of them make very much sense (people with two houses), some are inherently outdated (videogaming has moved on quite a bit) and some just plain wrong (Zune wasn’t excactly the leader of social music revolution).

The writing is often boring, as if the author, too, would have got fed up with the unending parade of people grouped by a single factoid.

Interesting as an idea, but falls flat in execution.

Aug 122014

Dark Knight ReturnsBack in 1987 (or so) the finnish translation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was an unexpected return to the realm of superhero comics I had written off as childish pastimes the year before (the domestic edition of X-Men having started on not so good storylines following the dissolution of the Claremont/Byrne-duo). But sadly, like so many things in high school, this was a discovery made too late – by the time we found out about the awesomeness of the four issue series, the first three installment had been sold out. Borrowing them from friends with a better taste was no match to owning the whole.

Needless to say, the publisher didn’t do a re-run, and we settled for the next piece of goodness: Year One.

I finally picked up the Titan Comics edition a couple of years later, and what a feast it was. And still is. Year after year. Re-read after re-read.

This, alongside Watchmen turned an entire genre upside down, and they have not been improved on since. Which is more than a little sad, since both of them are closing in on thirty years already.

Frank Miller’s take on an aging Batman is a cruel but deftly drawn one. Gotham City has deteriorated, as has the rest of the world. A world quite well resembling our own (with a Ronald Reagan for the U.S. president) yet subtly different (the island republic of Corto Maltese whose crisis pulls the globe to brink of nuclear war).

The script is merciless, it combines classic characters with modern cruelty and throws in surgically aimed stabs at the american society.

An awesome graphic novel, that should be read by anybody with any interest in comics. Or a good story.

Aug 102014

MapheadI have a new literary hero!

Ken Jennings, the man who ran rings around Jeopardy! for months turned out to be a witty, informative and interesting author.

The subject matter, maps and geography, of his Maphead could have been a lethally boring detailed dive into a single niche or a shallow overview of the subject. Fortunately, it is neither.

The author covers the subject from multiple perspectives and injects enough personal experiences (and occasional verbal zingers) into the tales to keep the book consistently interesting.

The book begins with the maps and the state of geography as a school subject, but is soon routed to geocaching, countryspotters and other quite expected geography-related hobbies. A chapter devoted to imaginary countries around the midpoint is an unexpected detour.

Unlike Map Addict, an earlier foray into the heads of map enthusiasts, Maphead refrains from being snarky, is not opposed to electronic mapping aids and is overall a much more pleasant book to read.

Best non-fiction book in a long time, and a good reason to seek out Jennings’ other books, too.

Aug 102014

Vilpittömästi SinunSince I liked Parantaja so much, I gave a chance to another new finnish mystery author, too: Pekka Hiltunen’s Vilpittömästi Sinun (Cold Courage in english) is a decent book, too, but doesn’t reach the heights of the former.

I had a hard time getting to grips with the book. It starts off well in chick-lit mode, but does get significantly better as the plot thickens. At times the author even manages to press the suspense-button rather well, at others there’s long stretches of rambling dialogue that doesn’t really add anything to the whole.

While the protagonist is believable enough, the second main character exhibits quasi-supernatural properties which do not click well within the milieu of 2010s London.

There’s two main plotlines in the book, and while a lot of effort is expended on both, they both seem to overflow their bounds without intersecting at all.

Though a lot remains unexplained in the book, this is an independent work. Hence I was more than a bit surprised to hear that this is just a first volume in a series. I’ll keep an eye out for the second volume, too.

Aug 102014

Inside OutI’ve been a Pink Floyd fan since high school, but my Floyd-Fu has occasionally been embarrassingly low. Below the surface of the obvious (Waters/Gilmour fallout, Syd Barrett’s spiral out of the band) there’s a lot more to know, and Nick Mason’s Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd does a decent job in filling out plenty of gaps.

The book begins well before the band was founded (and subsequently named) and ends well after the band was finished (the Live 8 performance notwithstanding). Nick Mason, the drummer of Pink Floyd, covers the more than two decades’ worth of ups, downs and odd sideways movements, too. Despite the sometimes chilly interpersonal times in the band the history remains surprisingly cordial, and no-one gets called out on running the biggest progressive rock band aground. Then again, the lack of communication between members seems to be a chronic source of misunderstandings.

For such a visual band as Pink Floyd, the book certainly would have benefited from a vastly larger (and colored!) selection of pictures.

Inside Out is an interesting book, but unexpectedly boring at times. But that’s not a major sin. However, the book being devoid of stories behind the songs is one such – though as the author had very little to do with most of the lyrics, he understandably avoids putting words into others’ mouths.

Aug 032014

Ceti RevisitedI bought Risto Isomäki’s Ceti Revisited in Finncon last year, and was quite a bit mystified by the blurb: had the alarmist environmentalist truly been able to write a book about the dangers of communicating with extraterrestrial intelligences.

The initial steps were good indeed. Theory and history of the topic were more or less adequate, but before long the author jumped back onto his favorite hobby horses. He has used both methane clatrates and coastal nuclear power stations a lot in the past, and it turns out that this book is no exception. A sizable chunk of a book on communicating with distant stellar neighbours devolves into the well-trodden paths. Paths that have no new content since he last wallowed in them or any meaningful connection to the book itself.

Great premise utterly spoiled by the authors perennial mannerisms.

Aug 032014

in Other WordsChristopher J. Moore’s In Other Words is a beautiful sideswipe at the variability of languages and cultures.

A short cross-section of words and expressions from around the world that make language such a fun topic.

The selection ranges from seen this to way beyond eclectic, with plenty of interesting midway stops along the path.

A short nice read, and one that would really benefit from a consistently updated website that continues the work begun here.

(And yes, this is very much the same concept as Adam Jacot de Boinod’s Tingo, which is an exquisitely crafted book as well).

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.