Thursday, 18 December 2014

But I Digress | Baby's First Audiobook

Confession time, folks: I'd never listened to an audiobook from beginning to end till 2014. Till this autumn, even.

In my defence, I had tried at various points in the past... but the time I have to spend simply listening is limited. Plus I suck at it, utterly: I have restless hands, so to listen to something I have to be doing something else at the same time. The dishes, for instance. Or driving. 

But I only do so many dishes; I only drive so far.

And there are things I listen to as often as possible. I've been a podcast fan for many years, as long-time TSS readers will recall, so between the Bombcast, Idle Thumbs, Rocket Talk, and the Skiffy and Fanty Show, there's been, before now, more than enough to keep my ears occupied—and I haven't even mentioned BBC Radio 4! There's always something fascinating on there, so on those rare occasions when my podcast supply ran dry, I tended to tune into Woman's Hour or whatnot.

But my circumstances, of late, have changed. Since the Summer I've been commuting to and from work—whihc is an hour and change away—twice a week. Then, sometime in September, the radio in my car broke, and no-one that I've taken it to in subsequent months has been able to identify why.

I ran out of podcasts stored on my phone pretty much immediately, and whilst I did waste an age looking for a few new ones, I came to my senses eventually. I tried streaming some radio, too, but I have a silly small data allowance, and I realised this was going to cost me a small fortune. 

So I bought myself an audiobook. More Fool Me by Stephen Fry, and read by said. He hasn't come up often on The Speculative Scotsman at bottom because he isn't either of those things—speculative or Scottish—but I'm a huge fan of the man, and I'd enjoyed the bits of his autobiography he shared at his live book launch.

More Fool Me lasted me a couple of weeks, and though I had significant problems with it as an autobigraphy—it's repetitive, incomplete and unbelievably brief—to my surprise, I enjoyed the experience of hearing it hugely.

So I doubled down when, all too quickly, it was finished: I bought the audiobook of Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson, which I'd been meaning to read since its release.

It's proven to be a completely different experience from More Fool Me. In the first instance, one of the two speakers reads his chapters with such bombast that his voice has been hard to get past. Other problems: this audiobook is fifty-odd hours in full, with long-ass chapters and few suitable stopping points. As such, I frequently find myself flabberghasted by the narrative, picking up as I must in the middle of a chapter. 

I've gone from one extreme to the other, I fear, and so you see: baby's first audiobook may well be baby's last... unless you lend a helping hand.

What I want from an audiobook, it seems, is something accessible. Sometimes that dovetails with my tastes. Something not too long overall, and read without the intrusion that's ruined (the audiobook of) Words of Radiance for me.

Recommend a friend?

Thursday, 11 December 2014

You Tell Me | The Year's Best Books

I still struggle to believe it's 2014, never mind the end of the year, nearly, but I'm reliably informed that I'm wrong. Not for the first time, nor the last, naturally.

The end of the year has come to mean something new to me, in recent years. There's Santa, sure; the birthday of the baby Jesus, but of course; and a bit of a break—yay! In advance of all that, though, the end of the year has, since the dawn of The Speculative Scotsman, signified a period of comprehensive critical consideration.

To that end, I tend to keep a list: of all the books I've read, the movies I've seen, the video games I've played, and so on. I failed at that in 2014, for various reasons, so forgive me, folks, if I overlook more than I usually do when the time comes to tackle Top of the Scots.

Truth be told, I was hoping we could compare notes—to begin with, about some of the best books we've read this year. Let me start you all off with a bit I contributed to the recent Reviewers' Choice on Tor.com:
2014 has been a banner year for British science fiction, beginning with The Echo by James Smythe—an immensely upsetting sequel that doubled down on the awesome promise of its unsettling predecessor—continuing courtesy Claire North’s fantastic Life After Life-alike, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August—a very different sort of novel than The Echo, yes, yet no less memorable—and concluding, because we’re already running out of room, by way of The Bone Clocks: the closest thing the man who came up with Cloud Atlas has written to a proper genre novel over the course of his career.
Reading through the other reviewers' recommendations, it's clear that I've completely failed at fantasy in 2014. I haven't read The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett or The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, though I sincerely mean to make time to catch up on those books over the break.


I feel much more up to speed on my science fiction. That said, All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park managed to pass me by, and if ever a novel had my name on it...

Horror-wise... well. Here's where the lack of a list has really ruined me. I remember really liking the opening act of Revival by Stephen King, but it ended—spoiler warning—with giant evil ants, and gah all over that. To the best of my recollection, then, the only horror story that really stands out to me is the Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer. Annihilation might just be the best book of the year, according to me. We'll see.

But please, you tell me: what have you read in 2014 that really rocked your socks?

Monday, 8 December 2014

Book Review | The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami


"All I did was go to the library to borrow some books."

On his way home from school, the young narrator of The Strange Library finds himself wondering how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire. He pops into the local library to see if it has a book on the subject. This is his first mistake.

Led to a special 'reading room' in a maze under the library by a strange old man, he finds himself imprisoned with only a sheep man, who makes excellent donuts, and a girl, who can talk with her hands, for company. His mother will be worrying why he hasn't returned in time for dinner and the old man seems to have an appetite for eating small boys' brains. How will he escape?

***

A couple of months ago, a story about the closure of yet another local library caught my eye at the same time as I was searching for a subject for the sixty-some students I teach to tackle—a problem of sorts for them to set about solving. I had in my head an exercise which would require each pupil to suggest a selection of strategies that might make the local library relevant again. 

Quite quickly we hit a wall, as I recall. It wasn't that the kids didn't grasp the task at hand; if anything, they understood the problem too well. None of them, you see—not a one—had even been to a library, far less used its facilities. In short order I saw that I'd based the week's work on a false premise: that local libraries had ever been relevant to them.

They certainly were to me, once—as they are to the narrator of The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami: a nearly new novelette from the author of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Originally released in Japan in the lean years between After Dark and IQ84, The Strange Library, as translated by Ted Goosen, tells the tale of an anonymous boy who gets more than he bargained for when, on the way home from school one afternoon, he visits his local library to look through a textbook or two:
To tell the truth, I wasn't all that eager to learn about Ottoman tax collection—the topic had just popped into my head on the way home from school. As in, I wonder, how did the Ottomans collect taxes? Like that. And ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don't know something, go to the library and look it up. (p.7)
To that end, The Strange Library's nameless narrator is directed to a room in the basement of the building, where "a little old man" with "tiny black spots [dotting] his face like a swarm of flies" (p.6) suggests several suitable books. The thing is, these books can't be borrowed—they have to be read in the reading room—and though the boy is already second-guessing himself, he's so obscenely obedient that he allows this apparent assistant to shepherd him still deeper into the library's lower levels.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Book Review | Ultima by Stephen Baxter


The hatches we discovered on Per Ardua were only the beginning. Bizarre gateways of alien design that allowed us to step across light years, they opened up the galaxy to us. They took us elsewhere and elsewhen, into a universe of futures and pasts that we could barely have imagined.

And we stumbled across a plan. A plan that stretched from the beginning of time to its end. A plan that needed us. Well, some of us. Now we have discovered just how small a part we play. It is time to change that.

***

Worlds and times collide in the concluding volume of the absorbing duology Proxima kicked off: "a story that encompasses everything that will be and everything that could have been," just as Ultima's flap copy claims, but fails, I'm afraid, to take in the little things—not least characters we care about—in much the same way as its intellectually thrilling yet emotionally ineffectual predecessor.

Ultima ultimately advances Stephen Baxter's ambitious origin-of-everything from the nearest star to Earth at the inception of existence to the end of time on the absolute farthest, but first, the fiction insists on exploring, at length, what the galaxy would look like in terms of technology if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen in the fifth century.

When we last accompanied Proxima's protagonist, Yuri Eden had just travelled through the portal he chanced upon at the pole of Per Ardua, which planet he and hundreds of other unfortunates had been given little choice but to colonise. The very fact of the Hatch changes everything, however; it is, after all, evidence of alien intelligence. But what do these beings want—whatever, wherever or whenever they may be?

Ultima opens on the other side of the Per Arduan portal with, rather than an answer, a deflection in a dead lanaguage—or, according to the ColU, "a lineal descendant of classical Latin anyhow." (p.21) The speaker of this strange tongue introduces himself as Quintus Fabius, centurion of the star vessel Malleus Jesu, and sets about doing what any good centurion would do: taking Yuri and his companion Stef Kalinski prisoner.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Book Review | Symbiont by Mira Grant


The SymboGen-designed parasites were created to relieve humanity of disease and sickness. But the implants in the majority of the world's population began attacking their hosts, turning them into a ravenous horde.

Panic spreads as these predators begin to take over the streets. In the chaos, Sal and her companions must discover how the parasites are taking over their hosts, what their eventual goal is—and how they can be stopped.

***

On the back of the unsightly excitement of Parasite, something like rigor sets in as the second half of what was a duology turns into the middle volume of a tolerance-testing trilogy. Symbiont isn't a bad book by any means—it's accessible, action-packed, and its premise remains appallingly plausible—but absent the ambiguity that made its predecessor so unsettling, it's  lamentable for its length and lack of direction.

The first part of Parasitology chronicled the apocalyptic consequences of SymboGen's latest and greatest innovation: the ubiquitous Intestinal Bodyguard—a magic pill meant to protect against allergy, illness and infection—was a worm which, in time, turned; a symbiotic organism supposed to support its host yet set, instead, on supplanting said. Before long, of course, this conflict of interests turned the population of San Francisco and its suburbs into zombies of a sort—sleepwalkers, as Mira Grant would have it.

The transition went differently for a few folks, though. After a catastrophic car crash, and at the cost of her every memory, Sally Mitchell's parasite saved her life... or so she thought.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Book Review | Wolves by Simon Ings


At school, Mick and Connie cooked up all the ways the world could end.

Years later, Michel imagines apocalypses for a living, and lives inside fantasies of the Fall. Conrad works in advertising, spinning aspirational dreams out of imaginary light.

Will their reunion reveal who killed Conrad’s mother?

Will it make them a lot of money? Or, just maybe, bring about the collapse of Western civilization?

A surreal whodunnit about what happens when unhappy men get their hands on powerful media, Wolves is an informed, atmospheric, cutting-edge tale of the near future.

***

Wolves has been hailed as Simon Ing's "spectacular return to SF," and it is that, I think—though the text's spare speculative elements only come into focus in advance of the finale, when the augmented reality Conrad's company conceives of matures into something more meaningful than an idea.

The rest is something else: a catastrophic coming of age tale complicated by a macabre mystery which reminded me of This River Awakens. At the book's beating heart, however, is the frustrated friendship between Conrad and his schoolmate Michel:
Michel was quiet, lugubrious, self-contained. For me, at any rate, he had extraordinary presence. A glamour. If he understood my feelings for him, he never let on. He showed very little tenderness for me. He wasn't interested in my weaknesses. He wanted me to be strong. He cared for me as you would care for your side-kick, your familiar, for the man you had chosen to watch your back. He said we had to toughen up. (p.31)
For what? Why, for The Fall, folks!

"The End Times were on their way. [Michel] was convinced of this." (p.98) Conrad isn't so sure, but he plays along with his hero's apocalypse prep—both to be with him and to escape the hell of his own home, an Overlook-esque hotel with an equally unsettling clientele: war veterans who were blind before our central character's father equipped them with special sensory vests.

All of which comes into play in a major way later, but at the beginning of the book, it's background. At the foreground of this phase of the fiction is Conrad's manic mother: a woman who habitually abandons her family in favour of "a protest camp that had grown up around a nearby military airbase." (p.51) She has to be rescued from this retreat repeatedly—a pattern rudely interrupted one summer when Conrad discovers her dead body in the boot of his father's car.