Book #134: Leviathan Wakes (2011)

author: James S.A. Corey
language: English
length: 19 hours and 8 minutes (1,148 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 May 2017

I got this audiobook on the recommendation of a coworker or manager, I think, when I mentioned I was into sci-fi and looking for a new book to read. So I decided to get it sometime during April, and was listening to it when I went cycling. I had planned to go on something more like a cycling trek during April, but sickness and injury stopped me in my tracks somewhat. But this book was still a nice companion to long bike rides, when I got the chance. It took me a long time to finish, of course – the last audiobook was A Symphony of Echoes, a whole month before this one.

The author, James S.A. Corey, is actually the pseudonym for two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which is a bit confusing. I’m not sure why they didn’t just use their own names – maybe it makes it easier to publish, or something. They wrote alternate chapters of the book, which are from the point of view of different characters.

It took me a few listens to twig that alternate chapters were from disparate points of view. The universe set up by the book is pretty grandiose, and it took a bit of getting used to. The two characters, Holden and Miller, meet up and get split up later in the book, but at first they don’t know each other. And the story takes a while to really get going.

The book is set in a colonized solar system – faster than light travel is impossible, but there’s some kind of constant-thrust drive that makes quick travel easy. This is actually a fairly common idea – it was also in We Are Legion (We Are Bob), for example, although if you’ve been keeping up with my reviews you’ll know I didn’t like that book much, or in Ultima – in those books there was some kind of infinite-like supply of energy that was used to travel interstellar distances. It was also used in The Adventures of Tintin, back in the 1950s, and the effects of gravity on humans reminded me strongly of what happened in the Moon expedition comics. This also made clear one of the other problems with We Are Bob – Bob could go up to 10 g or more without any issues, as he’s a computer projection, but in general the human characters in Leviathan Wakes can only go up to 3 g safely, and have to take a dangerous cocktail of drugs to stay awake and alive at higher thrust levels.

This level of realism made it feel a lot “harder” than the other sci-fi I’d been reading – and in general, gravity is very important to the story, reminding readers of this constantly. There’s rivalry between stocky inner-planet types, who “grew up in a gravity well”, and taller, more spindly types who grew up in the asteroid belt. That brings me to the other thing I liked a lot about this book, which is that it’s very realistic racially and linguistically. The “belters” have a special argot or pidgin that they use to communicate, which is difficult to understand when it’s being read aloud on the audiobook, but lends a special level of realism to the book. I was also glad to see that not everyone speaks English – Russian, Bengali and Hindi at the very least are mentioned a lot during the book.

As the story develops there are a couple of revelations that stretch the boundary of what I’d consider “hard” sci-fi, but this allows the book to also have a mystery feel to it, and even have a few straight-up zombie horror scenes. I imagine it would look exciting on film – and indeed, there’s apparently a TV series, called The Expanse after the name of the book series. I guess I’d better get my act together and try to watch that at some point. I’m not that up-to-date with TV.

Anyway, there are a lot more levels to this story, such as the character Miller’s attachment to Julie Mao, a girl whose disappearance he’s been investigating. And stuff is generally set up and foreshadowed well. So in general, although it took a very long time to finish this book, I enjoyed it a lot and have now downloaded the next book to listen – as of writing this, it’s the next in my queue of things to listen to. But I’m a few weeks behind on reviewing, so it’ll be a while before I get to reviewing it!

Has anyone else read this? What did you think?

Book #133: A Symphony of Echoes (2013)

author: Jodi Taylor
language: English
length: 524 minutes (8 hours 44 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 April 2017

This is the sequel to Just One Damned Thing After Another, a book I listened to back in November about time travel. I was a bit lukewarm about the book, I think – it kept me interested but it was a bit too madcap for my liking.

This book is more of the same. Its historical sections are great and well-researched – this time they visit Edinburgh during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, for example, to try and “correct” the timeline. They also go forward in time to a future version of their institution, but I got confused at this point how far forward it was meant to be.

The book itself suffers a few structural problems: mainly, it’s too episodic. I feel like I’m reading (well, hearing) three or four short stories instead of one coherent novel. It’s unclear what the central conflict of the novel is meant to be. For example, at the beginning, the author introduces Jack the Ripper as this kind of monster that is difficult to kill, which they manage to do, but it’s never mentioned again. Where did it come from? Perhaps it’s for a later instalment of the series – Taylor has been pretty prolific, after all.

On a similar note, there are so many characters and timelines, it’s very easy for Taylor to just kill off characters. Like there’s a character called David, the main character’s assistant – I can’t remember when or how he was introduced, but he suddenly dies in the middle of the story of something unrelated to the main plot, and the main character is upset, but it’s ultimately inconsequential and didn’t really shed any insight.

One of the things I liked about the other book was it didn’t shy away from depicting sexual assault or the other nasty things that women often have to go through, and there was still a bit of that theme, but not as strongly as the first book. It comes up as a moral dilemma at the end, but I thought it cheapened it a bit this time, didn’t quite work as well as I would hope.

The other thing was the narrator of the audiobook. She’s good at accents, but not so good at timing her speech to match the tone of the words. There’s a bit in the middle where the main character is so shocked by something that happens, and she goes on a literal rampage, driven by these words echoing in her mind, and the way the narrator says them doesn’t match to how I think they “should” sound. It was too frantic. It’s not the only example. I feel like she was trying to read through the book as fast as possible.

The book really just needs a bit more focus, because I think there’s a lot of compelling stuff there. As it is it’s a bit of a mess. But maybe that’s the point. After all, the main character is proud – in a very English way – of how messily her cohort all work and how much they love tea. Taylor needs to learn not to apply that quite so strictly to her books, though.

Book #132: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

aka: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
author: Kurt Vonnegut
language: English and some German
length: 313 minutes (5 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 March 2017

I got this on a cheap deal from Audible, and what a coincidence: it’s narrated by James Franco, who I just watched chew the scenery in King Cobra. I’ve been meaning to read some of Vonnegut’s work for a while, as he’s one of those authors that’s constantly referenced in other works – and is rightly considered a classic author of sci-fi.

The book is a kind of comedy about war, written semi-autobiographically about Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden during World War II. In that vein, it fits well with Catch-22, but is less obviously comedic in its outlook. In fact, it is a lot more morbid than that book – Catch-22 waits until near the end of the book when we’ve become emotionally invested in its characters before it starts killing them off, but this book starts right from the beginning.

The story of the book is that the main character Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck in time”, and later kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who can see all of time simultaneously and are fatalistic in their worldview. Billy Pilgrim also adopts this worldview. To this end, every time a death is mentioned in the book (which is a lot), the book uses the Tralfamadorians’ catch-phrase, “So it goes”.

Like all the best books, and especially sci-fi, this book can be read on multiple levels – on the one hand, it’s the adventures of a man who travels through time a lot and meets aliens. On the other, it seems to be a depiction of PTSD flashbacks, or some other mental illness brought on by Billy’s experiences during the war. Also, because of the non-linear way the book is structured, it is probably best to read it two or three times to get everything, to really understand what is going on. Like Catch-22, jumping around so much could leave me confused as to where I was.

I also realized while listening to this that this was certainly the inspiration for the aliens in Arrival. I feel like I’ve read them in the wrong order now!

As for James Franco, honestly I don’t think he’s cut out for audiobook reading. There’s an awful lot of vocal fry and mumbling in this (especially when he repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra), and the book also contains a few sentences of untranslated German, which Franco utterly mangles. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all. Can audiobook producers not screen that kind of stuff before producing an audiobook? I complained about Franco in my review of King Cobra recently – I also just realized that I complained about him (indirectly) in my review of 127 Hours, about five years ago, although not by name because I didn’t know him at the time. That film relied so much on his one performance, and he couldn’t quite carry it.

So I think I’d like to read this book again just to absorb it better, but maybe in print form this time. I think it’s beautifully structured, to the point that a single reading doesn’t quite cut it. Anyone else read it? What do you think?

Book #131: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (2016)

author: Dennis E. Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 10 March 2017

I like science fiction books, and I’ve been through enough of them that most of what Audible recommends me now are sci-fi (that and cheap knock-offs of the Peter Grant books). But sci-fi for me can be hit and miss, and this unwieldily-titled book is for me an almost exact repeat of Ready Player One. It’s compelling enough to finish and has a nice central idea, but doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons – and yet has very high reviews on Audible and Amazon, leading me to try it.

The central idea is that the main character Bob signs up for a new cryogenic freezing project, but his consciousness is instead uploaded a hundred years later into a spaceship intended as a Von Neumann probe – a self-replicating deep space explorer. His job is then to go out to the nearest stars and try to find planets where earthlings can colonize, then to replicate himself and send the new replicants out to other planets, and so on.

I think a lot of its appeal to mid-30s men is that it’s full of pop-culture references. The main character often references Star Trek, for example. One of the 22nd century human characters remarks that he has to brush up on his 20th century sci-fi, and I felt the same way. The other thing is that every time Bob replicates himself the new replicant adopts a new name, often taken from pop culture. Things like Riker from Star Trek, or Homer Simpson, or Calvin and Hobbes. So there is a nice element here if you can recognize the names.

The book also borrows heavily from 1984 with its political fragmentation – there’s an American equivalent, a United States of Europe, and China controlling all of East-Asia. It does have a Brazilian Empire, the main antagonists, an African republic, and Australia, so not as simplified, but when Bob wakes up in the 22nd century they’re talking about the Ministry of Truth in the new American theocracy called “F.A.I.T.H.” – with such name changes, it could get difficult at times to remember what the book’s countries were meant to be.

Basically my main problem with the book is it doesn’t have any coherent structure, and it doesn’t have a proper ending, as it ends on a bunch of cliffhangers. I think the author wants to set up a big space opera setting, but it’s a bit tedious. I would have much preferred something that gave closure on some kind of main plot, but as it is, it’s difficult to say which is the main plot. It splits off after the first replication into one character that stays to try and terraform a planet, another who goes back to Earth to try and sort out the political situation there, and several who go on to other planets. The original Bob ends up finding a “primitive” alien civilization and influences them, while a more introverted replicant finds evidence of a larger alien civilization who have strip-mined a solar system – but this is part of the teaser for the next book, it seems.

The other problem is, there’s just one character, and he’s boring and obnoxious. The book goes to pains to distinguish the new Bobs from one another, giving them new names, and in some cases the narrator of the audiobook tries unsuccessfully to give them new voices (but he can’t imitate Homer Simpson, who ends up sounding like a Minnesotan or Canadian). They talk about how their personalities differ… but it’s not enough. It’s a cast of one guy talking to his own clones. I know this could be done effectively – although it’s a different medium, just look at Orphan Black, for instance, where one actress plays upwards of ten completely different characters. Bob is just a bit masculine in an insipid way, and this book is what a lack of diversity looks like. (There’s also a more minor issue that reminded me of Neptune’s Brood, in that the now-robotic character is hard to relate to in a human way.)

I also had major issues with the tribal culture he comes across. They don’t look like humans, but in every other way, they do. They have two genders, the strong males who do the hunting and the weak females who do the childrearing and gathering fruits and berries. The author even speculates that this might be universal. Like, he can do whatever he wants in his own universe, but I’ll never be convinced that aliens follow the American/Western gender binary. On those last two points, I just want to mention The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – in that case, although I was annoyed that the aliens tended to have a gender binary, it was almost always completely different from what we’re used to. And the set of characters didn’t consist of one guy replicated over and over. It was, in a word, more diverse.

OK, I have one more problem, actually. The fight scenes never left me feeling in jeopardy. None of the Bobs actually get killed in a fight until quite near the end. But as soon as they started replicating, I was hoping the author would consider them more disposable and start killing them off to engender a sense of danger when confronting the other characters. They also use the same tactics each battle. I just got bored with these scenes.

I did keep going with the book because I did want to find out what happened next, and I think there is a sense of wit there. It’s just, it’s not what I would hope for in sci fi. The book closes with humans settling on two planets, that our nerd fanboy main character has named after two planets in the Star Trek universe, and the book’s final line (spoilers lol) is “Roddenberry would be proud”, and I completely disagree – Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a character-driven diverse show that tried to break boundaries in society (viz. the first interracial kiss on American TV and the strong gay subtext between Kirk and Spock)… and this book is an idea-driven book about one straight white American dudebro talking to himself for most of the book. I hate to break it down to simplistic labels like that – I don’t think those kinds of arguments necessarily hold water, but “Roddenberry would be proud” is a strong claim.

So if you want flawed but amusing soft sci fi fluff, it’s okay. It does its job. If you’re expecting more, there’s plenty of better stuff out there.

Book #129: Magpie Murders (2016)

author: Anthony Horowitz
language: English
length: 947 minutes
finished listening on: 26 Feb 2017

This is one of the bestsellers on Audible at the moment, which is how I heard about it, and it’s a book with a unique conceit, which is why I chose to listen to it. It’s basically a book within a book – and while that’s not in itself a unique conceit, I don’t know of any other books that reproduce an entire fictional book within its own pages.

It’s nominally a crime thriller / murder mystery in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, but it’s actually the story of an editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a book and finding that it has missing chapters at the end, and then trying to find out how the story ends. Meanwhile, the author of the book, Alan Conway, is murdered, and she ends up in her own murder mystery.

The conceit works well in the audiobook format, as the narrator switches to a male voice for the book-within-the-book, and switches back to the female voice for the parts narrated by the editor of the book. The male narrator does well with the fictional book, which is set in a rural part of England, and has a German main character in Atticus Pund (or Pünd, maybe – I didn’t see the name written down, but there was a reference to an umlaut at one point, although neither narrator pronounced it correctly if there was), who is the book’s detective. He had quite a dynamic voice and range of accents. The female narrator isn’t as good at accents, but that works well for her sections, which are narrated in first person and more conversational in tone – she’s doing things like commenting directly on the style and narration of the book within the book. I actually forgot at one point that she was also, strictly speaking, a character in the novel, which is pretty rare! But basically, when she narrates dialogue, the other characters all sound posh, and the Scottish accent she attempted for one character was laughable.

It’s not my first experience of Horowitz’s writing, but the last time I read him must be more than a decade ago – he wrote the very popular Alex Rider series, and I read the first few books when I was young. They were pretty formulaic young-adult James Bond clones, but exciting for teenage boys. I think one even got made into a movie. My brother was also into them, more than me. I actually think Horowitz is still writing them, and I’m sure they’d be interesting to read now, but I’m well out of the target audience. I also read another “adult” book by him, also a long time ago. I get the feeling he’s been pigeonholed as a children’s writer, leading to frequent comments that books like this are a rare break from form for him.

In the book, this is actually reflected in the author who is murdered, who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a murder mystery writer, and that’s one of the many levels that the book works on. Similarly, aspects of the murder of the author are reflected in aspects of the murder in the story he wrote in the story. It gets confusing if you think about it for too long.

But I liked the book for that. In the first half it’s a straight murder mystery in the style of Poirot or Holmes, but also reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s post-Potter work (the Cormoran Strike series or The Casual Vacancy) – a little old-fashioned with its 50s setting in a village.

It then goes ahead and deconstructs itself, and even the whole murder mystery genre, in the second half. At this point it takes on a fairly accurate description of modern Britain (I always appreciate seeing gay characters, even if one of them is the murder victim, and not everyone is unrealistically white), reminiscent again of J.K. Rowling or the Peter Grant series (although that’s a lot more self-conscious about breaking that mould).

Then in the final act, it dives right back in to the murder mystery schtick for the Reveal, first as Susan solves her side of the mystery, and then as she finally finds the missing chapters and we get to hear the solution to the original mystery. And as it goes, there are further excerpts from Conway’s writing and from other characters and authors in comparison, and Horowitz writes each style distinctively and adeptly.

There are also a number of nice twists in the ending, and I laughed out loud on a train when the secret of the detective character’s name is revealed. It was nice to get closure on the story – at one point I hadn’t expected to get it – but the two endings didn’t tie together quite as nicely as I’d hoped.

So I would recommend it overall. It’s not ground-breaking, exactly, but it accomplishes something unique, and going right out of the story in the way this does lends it a special quality. Anyone else read it?

Book #127: Catch-22 (1961)

catch22author: Joseph Heller
language: English with some Italian
length: 984 minutes (16 hours, 24 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 Feb 2017

It looks like my other trend at the moment is going through classic twentieth century literature (following 1984), with the help of Audible, which pushes such books on me.

Catch 22 is such a ubiquitous phrase in English, it’s hard to go into this without a preconceived notion of what it means – plus the inevitable question “What’s Catch 21?”, to which I think the answer is, there isn’t one. Joseph Heller pulled the phrase from nowhere, it seems. But I don’t have a very clear idea after reading the book, as it seems to apply to a lot of situations, and may not even exist. Essentially it’s about men trying to get out of the military by exploiting the rules.

I think if I’d read this in high school, as so many others have, I probably would have hated it. I mentioned this a couple of years ago when I listened to a recorded version of Hamlet – I think the intervening ten or eleven years’ maturing have made a big impact on my ability to enjoy these books. I also enjoyed the delivery of the audiobook narrator in this case. Choosing to read a book and being forced will also have a different impact on me.

It’s hard to summarize everything that happens in the book, as it does drag on a bit toward the end. It’s set during the second world war, and is a satirical look at military incompetence. Every other line is something else comedic, people taking their orders too literally, or a dilemma of some kind. It’s quite relentless, and it’s very frustrating to hear the conversations playing out. But I found it very funny too.

I was reminded strongly of Full Metal Jacket (which I’ve seen only the first half of) with the depiction of the military officers. I wonder where this depiction came from originally. Is it real? I have a hard time seriously believing that.

There are also so many characters in the book it can be hard to keep track of – but they all have some kind of backstory or joke attached to them, and the book tries to jump around the different characters. In the first part it does this a lot more and also jumps around time too, making it difficult to follow what happens – in the later parts it starts following a more linear narrative, and near the end more characters start dying, once we’ve become emotionally attached to some of them, and the book takes on a more serious tone.

I liked Yossarian as a character, and I sympathized a lot with his ever-more-futile attempts to get discharged. I liked the weird mid-book section where he follows Milo around a bunch of other countries, who turns out to be hailed as a leader in half the places they visit. I liked the chaplain’s constant internal debates. I liked the commander constantly increasing the required missions for frivolous reasons. I liked the bits (despite the obvious and rampant misogyny) where they go to Rome and interact with the “whores”, but can’t understand each other’s language. I think there were a lot of good moments – if not always tied together very well.

But I’m sure others have made a more coherent summary of this book than I could ever. I’m not really here for that. I want to recommend this book – for the main part, on the strength of its wordplay and characterization. I also liked that the book would call back on a throwaway joke it made earlier – I think this shows a mastery of literary style on Heller’s part, along with his obviously high command of the English language.

What do you think? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who had to read this in school. Is it true that these books are better appreciated once you have a bit more life experience under your belt?

Book #125: The Hanging Tree (2016)

hangingtreeauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English and a bit of Krio (Sierra Leone creole)
length: 618 minutes (10 hours 18 minutes) including an interview with the author and narrator
finished listening on: 16 Dec 2016
Rivers of London/Peter Grant series 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

I’ve pretty much blazed through this series now, and this book was released only a month ago in late November. Yeah, I’m liking it a lot.

I don’t have much to add to this review that I didn’t already touch on in the last few books. I love the exquisite description that goes into this book, and although this one actually got a bit too fast-paced, I like the storylines. I love the one-liners – I think this time there was a sarcastic quip about the Shard early on that I’d like to have written down, but unfortunately my memory doesn’t last so long.

I like the casual realistic diversity in the cast of characters – in this one, Peter’s sidekick is a Somalian Muslim woman that was introduced in one of the earlier books, and one of the side characters is mentioned to be trans when the police do a background check on her. Or that he always introduces white characters with the adjective white, which a lot of books would unconsciously neglect to do. I don’t want that to be the only redeeming feature, or the only reason that people would read this, but it’s indicative of a book and author that knows where things are at in the world.

I mentioned in the last review that I have a strong suspicion that Aaronovitch writes down the accents of several of the characters just to make the narrator (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) read in that accent, which he’s generally good at, and when I heard the little podcast-style interview at the end of the audiobook with both men (a welcome surprise, I hope more books include stuff like that), I was pleased to hear that that’s exactly what’s happening – and that what’s more, he also gave more specific notes about some of the characters’ exact origins, and gave Holdbrook-Smith a recording of Krio for the short conversation in the middle with the main character’s mother, so that he could get it accurate. I still found this bit difficult to understand – I’m gonna guess that it would be easier to catch if I was reading it in print, like maybe the words would be more recognizable.

Unlike the last story, this one actually advances the plot of the series. But similar to some of the others, it’s not always clear what direction it’s headed in (this can be a good and bad thing). It doesn’t waste time introducing the main police case that the characters are to be interested in, but it switches a couple of times to following another strand. But it gets dramatic later on and there are a few major twists. So it’s a welcome addition to the series.

But now I’m caught up, and it’s like with TV shows when I get into them late: I don’t like the sudden existential dread of knowing I’ll have to wait a year (or probably more) in order to read the next in the series. Perhaps that’s good, though – I can go away from it and come back later. Looking forward to it, whenever it comes!

Book #124: A Closed and Common Orbit (2016)

acacoauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English and some invented languages
length: 789 minutes (13 hours, 9 minutes)
finished listening on: 2 December 2016

This is the second book in the series of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. When I finished that book back in September, the sequel hadn’t been released yet. I think it came out in October. Like its predecessor, it’s coincided with an uptick in the amount of cycling I’ve been doing (during which time I generally have it on), as I’m finally getting over various muscle injuries I’ve had during this year. Indeed, I had injured my elbows back in September because of bad posture on my bike, so I’ve now been able to fix the bike position and other stuff.

So I say it’s a sequel, and that’s only kind of true. It’s following two minor characters from the previous book – Pepper, a techie with a mysterious past, and the AI Lovelace, known as Sidra from about the second or third chapter, who was rebooted at the end of the last book with a scrubbed memory, much to the despair of all the other characters. Basically, Pepper convinces the AI to be reinstalled into a body-kit, like a hyper-realistic android, and then this story is about her journey as she settles into her new body, and the people she meets. In alternate chapters, it also looks into Pepper’s origin story as Jane 23 – a slave clone on a decadent world, sorting through junk in a scrap yard in a world populated by “Enhanced” humans. Sounds like something out of the Hunger Games.

Both characters’ arcs are about finding identity, similar to some of the themes of the first book, finding friendship, and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. It’s coming-of-age, essentially. Sidra’s story is often about being the “ghost in the machine” – she never feels connected to her body, doesn’t feel ownership of it, until really the end of the book. Part of her journey is literally hacking into her programming to be able to tell lies, and this seems to be one of the keys to her feeling in control of her body. Jane/Pepper’s story is more about finding one’s purpose in life, which is reflected to an extent in Sidra’s story, with a hefty dollop of PTSD and the other effects of an abusive childhood – especially at first, as not having a task to do would lead to punishment in her factory.

Compared to the last book, it’s less of a space opera and more of an interpersonal drama set nominally in space. There are maybe five characters we need to care about throughout, which is a lot less taxing to keep track of, and they don’t really go off-world – no journeying through hyperspace like before. But Chambers uses the opportunity to explore the cultures of her invented universe a lot more, and various cultures are mentioned and expanded that weren’t before. It’s like a warm embrace welcoming me back into her world – it’s only been a few months since the last one, and even then it’s nice to come back into it, with all the unique words and expressions that her future people use.

If I’m to give any outright criticism of the book, as I did before with The Long Way…, it’s going to be mostly nitpicking. Perhaps I wasn’t fully satisfied with the genders again (and the narrator is still awkward saying the epicene pronoun xe) – this time we see that the Aeluons have four genders, but I’d prefer to say four physiological sexes or phenotypes. The extra two genders are basically bigender and agender in our modern context, but they’re actually physically different from males and females.

Anyway, one character Tak switches between male and female every other scene, similar to the character Corey/Kory in The Art of Breathing, which I listened to last year. But unlike that, where the male and female represent different sides of the character and their psyche, I didn’t perceive any significant difference in the way that Tak is presented or the way other characters react to them in one gender or the other. It’s more a game of working out which pronoun the character is using in each chapter. Basically I think I’d have liked a more in-depth look at how this affects the society and the characters.

But those are pretty minor points, and they’re not the main thrust of the story. Just like The Long Way…, it’s a great female-driven sci-fi-esque story about friendship and found family, and that alone should be enough to recommend it. It’s also funny and sweet in equal measures, and towards the end I couldn’t stop listening (some other audiobooks, I can only withstand about an hour at a time before I start tuning out). OK, perhaps a bit saccharine at times, but nonetheless a great listen. The two books are standalone, and one can really read them in any order, but I think the previous book is a better starting point overall. It will fill in a lot of background that’s missing from this book, and it’s a more conventional sci-fi story. But this is a really good book.

Book #123: Just One Damned Thing After Another (2013)

jodtaaauthor: Jodi Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours, 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 16 November 2016

This book is another one that kept coming up in the sci-fi section of Audible, and eventually I got around to listening to it. It’s about time travel, and some historians who go back to investigate real life events and get a better insight into what actually happened.

It’s an interesting idea, and it’s one that is obviously carried out lovingly by someone who’s well into her history, as a lot of things are described in great and accurate detail. Linguistic and cultural matters are not glossed over, so the characters take a great deal of training to be ready for their travels.

The book’s sense of humour very obviously takes after Terry Pratchett, especially with the idea of a very disorganized band of misfits saying “bloody hell” a lot. It works well, but I think it’s Taylor’s first book, and I think she needs to find a bit more of her own style.

One thing I found, though, was the book was so full of ideas it was often spilling over. One the one side, there are the sci-fi aspects with time travel paradoxes and the like, and the intrigue plot with the breakaway characters from the future timeline, but it’s also trying to depict a bunch of disparate time periods, and the present-day characters’ relationships and interpersonal drama – and there are also a lot of characters to juggle. There’s also frank discussion of issues such as sexual assault (which is dealt with sensibly and sensitively), but it often comes as a bit of a shock after the romping nature of a lot of the rest of the book.

I felt when listening to the audiobook that I could often miss key points due to the fast pace – the time travel paradoxes were often explained in an almost throwaway sentence, or five years suddenly pass in the middle of the book when it glosses over their years-long training period, or a character seems to go missing and I had presumed her dead until she arrives back in the story later on. I think a slower pace would work well for this. I also had a bit of trouble distinguishing minor characters, or even major characters like the “chief” and “boss”, who were different, although the narrator had a good voice for accents and could mitigate this a lot.

But the story was well-told, overall, and it left enough mystery at the end that I might like to continue with the series. I’ll see, though – it’s pretty long at about nine books already. I don’t know if I have the stamina!

Anyone else read this?

Book #121: Foxglove Summer (2014)

foxgloveauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 645 minutes (10 hours, 45 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 November 2016
Rivers of London series 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

This is the fifth book in the Rivers of London series about magical constable Peter Grant, and it’s the first one that’s not actually set in London – it’s now been transposed to Herefordshire, where he goes first on a routine investigation of a magician who lives there, and then gets embroiled in the investigation of two missing children.

It’s a welcome change of pace from the other books in this series, and allows the author to do something different with the characters, but it basically doesn’t advance the overarching plot much, if at all. At the end of the last book (big spoilers!) the character of Lesley defects to the other side, tempted over by the big baddie. Here she texts a bit with the main character, implying that she’s spying on him, but doesn’t show up.

I did enjoy a lot of things about this book – I liked seeing how magic fits into the countryside setting, and I enjoyed finding out new things about Aaronovitch’s brand of magic, as usual. I liked the weirdos the main character meets, and I liked that people kept asking him about aliens, as if it’s more of a country thing to believe in.

Similar to before, I liked how Aaronovitch kept naming accents in the book, because it meant Holdbrook-Smith (the narrator of the audiobook) had to do the character in that accent. His Scottish is slipping a bit, but his Scouse sounded alright to me.

Also similar to before, I like that the book has gay side characters. I’m like a broken record with this – but it’s very important to me that this happens more. I like characters who nonchalantly refer to their boyfriends even when I’m not actually setting out to read a gay story, which tend to be niche and not popular.

With the ending of the book (you should probably look away if you don’t want to read any spoilers…), I thought there was going to be a bigger cliffhanger than there ultimately was – the main character gets saved at literally the last minute from having to stay in Faerie Land for ever. I was interested that such a place existed in this fictional universe.

But ultimately this book is filler. It’s good stuff, but I’m waiting for the story to continue properly with the next book, which I think has just come out this month.