The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Hodder (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I have heard this book described as if Firefly and Red Dwarf had a baby, and this was it. After reading this, I would concur, but also add that Friends joined them for a threesome and they asked Farscape to film it. This is the only way I can think to describe this bizarre, loveable, quirky mishmash of a book. It is as conventional a piece of hard sci-fi you could imagine, and yet wholly unconventional at the same time. The story, such as it is, concerns a battered ship and motley crew of humans and aliens, whose job is to tunnel, create wormholes, for quick travel across the galaxy, who are given the job of a lifetime to tunnel through to a newly discovered warlike species. The actual getting to the place they are to start tunnelling takes all but the last 50 pages, the rest of the book consists of the various adventures and misadventures they encounter getting there. Really the meat of the book is the complex relationships between the crew members, the humans, Rosemary the central character, an accountant on the run from her past, Ashby the captain, Corbin the unpleasant one who has a secret which nearly costs him his life, and engineers the tattooed tech-nut Kizzy and her offsider Jenks, who is in love with the ship’s AI. The aliens, Sizzix, the reptilian who is very, very affectionate, Dr Chef, doctor and cook, whose race is slowly dying, the paired being Ohan, who is theirself slowly dying, and the captain’s love interest, a sexy alien soldier who pops in and out of the story. This makes for a complex mix of relationships, which impinge on romance, sex, religion, technology, health, prejudice and just about every other topic you can think of. This is a fairly nicey-nice universe, a la Trek, with the exception of a few unpleasant races, everyone gets along pretty well. Its a marvellous piece of writing, I could get irritated with the lack of a real central plot, but I really can’t, everyone is just so nice and loveable, even the arch-jerk Corbin gets to do something heroic that saves a crew member. Its just a fun read, I really hope there’s a sequel.

9/10

Ghost Soldiers Of Gettysburg

Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg: Searching for Spirits on America’s Most Famous Battlefield, by Patrick Burke and Jack Roth

Llewellyn Publications (2014), Paperback, 288 pages

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Do I believe in ghosts? The answer is a qualified maybe. I am somewhat inclined to accept the possibility that emotionally charged events can leave an imprint on the surrounding terrain or atmosphere, which in the right conditions, can literally play back, the so-called Stone Tape theory. Firm, incontrovertible evidence is, as always, yet to be found, but it least seems possible under our present knowledge of the universe. I am decidedly less inclined to accept the possibility of fragments of human consciousness somehow surviving death and being able to contact or be contacted by sensitives. The first theory lends itself to solid scientific investigation with a sceptical mind and suitable instrumentation, and I have been part of such investigation in the past and will be again in the future. The second idea requires the intervention of psychics and mediums, and that I have never been a party to. This division leads to an inevitable split in the types of paranormal books one can buy, those that claim a basis in scientific, technical investigation and those that rely on the testimony of psychics. I eagerly seek the former, avoid the latter. Basically I love a good ghost story. I’m also a Civil War buff of long standing. So you would think I would grab at a book like this with glee, and I did. You might also assume I would enjoy it immensely, and in that you would be half-right. Hearing this, you might guess after my long spiel about the difference between and my preferences regarding scientific investigation and the use of psychics, that the book turned out to be one of the latter kind rather than the former, and you would be again half-right. Half of this book is very good. The other half is hilarious. Basically, this book promises a detailed scientific investigation of what you would expect to be one of the most paranormally charged places in the US, if not the world, and with that reassurance, the book sets off confidently, and immediately descends into Wa-Wa Land. Firstly we have so-called scientific investigators wandering off into the battlefield, but instead of using their instruments, they settle down to have a cosy chat with soldiers dead for 150 years, to sort out some issues with the battle. Then they offer to help the said soldiers cross over, but there’s a problem. The soldiers from opposing sides refuse to cross over together. So, they are lined up in military order, and with accompanying rebel yells and Union huzzas, they cross to the other side. Trust me, you have to read this piece to believe it, I actually had to check this book was intended to be non-fiction, I was starting to believe I had somehow wandered through the Looking Glass. And it just goes on like that. Every so often the instruments and cameras and digital recorders are produced, but the authors and their friends keep talking to dead soldiers and actually believe they have changed the history of the battle because spirits told them what did not make it into the history books (That laughing you can hear in the background is my imagination of how several eminent Civil war scholars I know would react to that.) OK, history books are wrong because dead guys say so. Is there anything of value in this book to the serious ghost researcher and indeed the interested Civil War buff? Yes, there are some very good photographs, some valuable EVP and other vidence is captured and described, and there are suitable creepy and spooky unexplained happenings. And the events of the battle, the tragedy of it, are also well-captured, it is actually quite a good history of the battle (the bits provided by dead guys apart, of course). Yes, as a lover of ghost stories and a Civil War buff, I did find something to like in this book. Not as much as I’d hoped, of course, but on the whole I am sort of glad I read it. Half of it anyway.

6.5/10

Extinction Point

Extinction Point, by Paul Antony Jones

47North (2014), Kindle edition, 308 pages

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There’s nothing startlingly original in this little book, but what it does it does exceedingly well. Emily Baxter is a journalist living and working in New York when she witnesses a strange red rain start to fall. After the rain stops falling, all life on Earth starts to die, horribly, and Emily, apparently immune, is left, alone as far as she knows, in the shell of New York. Worst of all, she soon realises that the bodies of the dead are being transformed into something else, a new alien form of life. The bulk of the book revolves around Emily’s struggle to survive and make sense of the new world order, and then the beginning of her journey by bicycle across America after she makes contact with a group of survivors in Alaska. The book has been criticized for having too much exposition, although it seems to me this is a necessary consequence of Emily being essentially alone for 95% of the story. I found it moved swiftly, deftly and confidently, with minimal wastage of words. There is humour, drama, visceral horror and pathos in fairly equal amounts. Emily herself is a likeable and feisty heroine, whose struggle to cope with almost unimaginable horror is both engaging and emotionally involving, and she develops well from a street-smart if somewhat naive reporter reporter into a committed and determined survivalist. This is the first of four books (so far) in a series, and I’m certainly keen to see how the story develops and the process of Emily’s continued discovery of what has happened to her world. Nice little read.

8/10

Dark Run

Dark Run, by Mike Brooks

Del Rey (2015), Paperback, 432 pages

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One of an incredible run of sci-fi books being rushed out in a genre I have dubbed “Firefly porn”, based on that single season TV show that has garnered an incredible cult following, and now apparently is transferring its appeal to the written form. The familiar trope, originally borrowed from both literary and motion picture sources, of the battered smuggler/pirate/mercenary/trader ship, with a crew of misfits, all with secrets in their pasts, and their hard-bitten but ultimately decent captain, also with secrets in his past, is having a new lease of life. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Pelquin’s Comet, here is Dark Run, and I have in my to-read list Retribution Falls and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, all with a  a very similar premise. Dark Run would be somewhere in the middle of the quality scale for this genre, I have read better, but then I have read a lot worse, certainly it kept the pages turning until the end. Ichabod Drift is the skipper of the Keiko, a battered smuggler ship with a misfit crew, who accept a job from a powerful crime boss to deliver a package to Old Earth, only to discover at the last minute it’s a nuke intended to obliterate Amsterdam. The rest of the book is spent with the crew of the Keiko hunting down the man who ordered the hit, both to exact revenge and to stop him from eliminating them. There are some dull spots, but also plenty of action. Brooks’ vision of a galaxy divided up between Old Earth confederations of Europe, North America and Africa, but with plenty of room for individualists, rebels, scammers, crooks and wayward souls to plot their own, usually semi-legal, courses through existence is well-realized, and his characters are strong if not exactly original. The book’s denouement was actually somewhat of a letdown after early promise. While offering plenty of action, I found it a bit of a blah moment emotionally, after being asked to invest substantially in the lives of the characters. Still, this is by no means a bad book, it’s a fast-paced, and reasonably engaging read, not likely to linger over-long in your mind afterwards, but certainly worth a few hours of your time, particularly if you are into the Firefly porn genre.

7.5/10

Lasseter’s Gold

Lasseter’s Gold, by Warren Brown

Hachette Australia (2015), Paperback, 352 pages

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Rollicking re-telling of one of Australia’s most enduring legends. In 1897, Harold Bell Lasseter stumbled out of the central Australian desert with an incredible tale of a vast reef of gold, up to 10 miles long. Although a string of fortune-hunters searched diligently for his reef over the years, it could not be found. Nor could Lasseter be persuaded to tell anyone where it was. In 1930 he succeeded in persuading one of Australia’s most powerful union bosses to fund an expedition to find it, using funds secretly taken from the union’s coffers. The lavishly-funded expedition, provided with supposedly desert- proof vehicles and even a plane, proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Feuding among its members, frequent breakdowns, a plane crash, and of course, Lasseter’s refusal to let anyone know where to find his reef (to the extent many began to doubt it even existed), led to it being called off after months of fruitless searching. Lasseter himself refused to give up, and went off accompanied only a mysterious German dingo-trapper, and was never seen alive by white men again, his body found in a shallow grave months later. This is a ripping page-turner of a book, expertly told, that examines the evidence of Lasseter’s life and death, draws no firm conclusions about the existence or not of the gold reef, which has never been located despite countless searches over the years, but leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Lasseter was a fraud or a genuine visionary. Above all, it’s a great book about the Outback, the mysterious otherness which informs so much of Australia’s history and culture, brooding, brutal but hypnotically beautiful, prepared to give up wealth beyond calculation, but also to take life away from the unwary and the unprepared. Fantastic reading.

9.5/10

Death ex Machina

Death ex Machina, by Gary Corby

SoHo Press (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages

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I intimated in my review of the previous book in the series that I had considered it to be the best book in the series so far. Well, this one hasn’t surpassed it, its not as good in some ways, but better in others. It is the product of an even more confident author, who is now willing play games on the reader, with word tricks, Easter eggs and some stunning work in the denouement. The story takes Nico and Diotima (now newlyweds) into the world of Greek theatre. The Athenians invented modern theatre in one staggering period of creative genius in the 5th and 4th century BC, and this story goes right to the heart of that period, when theatre was a still-evolving mode of cultural expression, yet to shake off its status as a serious religious ritual rather than mere entertainment. Nico & Diotima are called in on the eve of the Great Dionysia, the Greek world’s most sacred festival celebrating the god of wine and good times, to exorcise a ghost which is upsetting the cast and crew of the theatre that is due to host the tragic plays which are the centrepiece of the festival. They drive away the ghost but are then confronted by a more sinister mystery when one of the actors is found hanging from the machine which raises and lowers the gods in and out of the action (the deux ex machina, literally “instrument of the gods”). Needless to say, the stakes become higher the closer Nico and Diotima get to the truth, but with the help of Nico’s ever-resourceful kid brother Socrates, they solve the mystery and catch out the bad guy in a wonderful set-piece where Corby frames his characters’ dialogue exactly as they would have been in an Athenian tragedy. Really breath-taking, confident stuff. While I found the story not as gripping as the previous book, it is certainly a lot funnier. In-jokes abound (“The Corinthian Play” as an obvious allusion to the old acting superstition about Macbeth, actors making terrible politicians etc). To round it off, Corby includes a comprehensive and fascinating series of notes which give the background to the development of Greek theatre, some of which is astonishing (the word tragedy comes from the Greek words “tragos”, goat, and “oidios”, song, so tragedy is literally “goat-music”). This is a series which is increasing in merit with every new addition, it is entertaining, captures the flavour of the Greek world perfectly, has endearing, amusing and interesting characters and is educational to boot. High class writing in a genre that is rarely distinguished by such flair.

9/10

There are Tittles in this Title

There are Tittles in this Title: It’s a Weird Word World, by Mitchell Symons

Michael O’Mara Books (2014), Hardcover, 192 pages

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For those who are wondering, a tittle is the dot above a lowercase “i” or “j”. If you are in fact the sort who wonders about things like tittles, then this is the book for you. A fascinating little compendium of everything interesting, bizarre, unbelievable and just plain ludicrous about words and language and everything pertaining thereof. Some of it is quite pedestrian (do we really need yet another list of palindromes or acronyms?), but most are supremely interesting and some are downright fascinating. Did you know, for example, that United Arab Emirates is the longest country name consisting of alternating vowels and consonants? Or that Hull City is the only British football club the letters of whose name cannot be filled in with pencil? “Hobson’s choice” originated from a stingy horse seller who would only sell customers the horse nearest the wall, giving them no choice in the matter, while “smart alec” refers to a 19th century criminal named Alex Hoag who would steal from mens’ clothes while they were having sex with his prostitute wife, then play the outraged husband to extort more from them. There are lists of lovely mnemonics (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – the colours of the rainbow), and nasty but funny teachers’ comments on report cards (“since my last report, your child has reached rock bottom and then started to dig”). There are things you would never guess in a lifetime (the Sanskrit word for war means “desire for more cows”, and “abracadabra” was originally a spell to ward off hay-fever) and things you probably would rather not know (in a hospital, “Code Brown” means an incontinence-related mishap and “Digging for Worms” refers to varicose vein surgery). In short, a great, fun read, whether or not you want to read it the whole thing right through (should take less than an hour), or just dip into for your own amusement and education.

8/10

Maverick Mountaineer

Maverick Mountaineer, by Robert Wainwright

HarperCollins (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I must admit to being a climbing and mountaineering addict. Not actually climbing myself, I rush to add, since my tolerance for heights is non-existent, but reading about it and looking at suitably vertigo-inducing photos that give me a delicious thrill while I’m safely in my armchair at zero metres of altitude. In fact the one failing of this otherwise exceptional book is that there’s not quite enough mountain-climbing for my taste. George Ingle Finch was an Australian-born climber of extraordinary talent, as well as a brilliant scientist, who but for the pettiness of a group of stuffed shirts in the antique  British climbing establishment, could well have been the first man atop Everest, and done it some 30 years before Hillary and Norgay. As it was, he was for a time the record-holder for altitude on Everest. Wainwright covers Finch’s early life in detail, including his formative climbing in the Alps with his brother, with some breath-taking achievements, although as I noted, the book disappoints by not having enough climbing description. Too often, the author mentions a climb that the brothers undertook, describes the climb in a sentence or two and then moves on to the next. I’m a climbing junkie as I said, I demand creative descriptions of great climbs, and I find this brevity of description somewhat off-putting, although I’m cognisant this is a biography and not a book about climbing per se. There is substantially more climbing when the story reaches Everest during the 1922 British expedition, as Finch, one of the early exponents of bottled oxygen, tries in vain to convince his fellow climber of the merits of O2, but gets only mockery in return. Meanwhile, his abrasive style has alienated the truly Neanderthal dimwits who are currently running British climbing, and for his pains, these obnoxious stuffed shirts maliciously leave him out of the 1924 expedition, when he was a better than even chance of reaching the summit. Wainwright pulls no punches in his description of the political shenanigans, the obtuseness of the Alpine Club bosses is laid bare and it truly astounding, and rage-inducing. This is a warts and all book, and to his credit, he doesn’t spare Finch, whose personal life was troubled to say the least. Married three times, his son from his earliest marriage he believed was not his, and hence largely ignored the boy, who grew up to be the famous actor Peter Finch, who never met his father until well into adulthood. Wainwright covers these sometimes messy details of Finch’s life openly and honestly. It all makes for a thoroughly absorbing account of a well-rounded and adventurous life. Great read for climbing addicts like me, and anyone who just likes an exciting and adventurous life story.

8.5/10