Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

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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 #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.

Book #110: Whispers Under Ground (2012)

whispersundergroundauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 617 minutes (10 hours, 17 minutes)
finished listening on: 5 Aug 2016
this series: (1) (2) (3)

This is the third book in the Rivers of London series by Aaronovitch. It’s not the strongest of the bunch – I found its story has blurred a bit with the next book in the series in my mind, and its climax wasn’t as dramatic as before.

This book takes the story into the London Underground, as the characters team up with faerie people to track down mysterious troublemakers. So there are a lot of train themes and motifs throughout the book. We find out a lot more about the lore of the series, compared to the others, where we’re being introduced to it, and still pretty clueless.

The other character, Leslie, is now being inducted as a magician too after a magical accident, so she and the main character Peter are back to being a sexually-frustrated double act, especially as she’s actually better at it than he is. This added a nice level to the story.

The audiobook narrator is also continuing to add an extra layer of realism to the book, and I’d like to commend him for that!

But basically it’s a stepping stone, as the later books (to be reviewed later) are a bit stronger than this one.

Film #208: Girls Lost (2015)

Girls-Lostaka: Pojkarna
director: Alexandra-Therese Keining
language: Swedish
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 12 July 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 2/6)
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

Just based on the description, this looked like the most interesting movie to me – a kind of body-swapping fantasy with obvious trans undertones. Actually, I think they cover all the letters in LGBT and then some.

Body swapping where a character finds they want to stay as the other gender is not new, to be sure – we’ve certainly seen it in Being John Malkovitch, for example – but I thought this film was quite unique. Here, three girls, who are obviously closer already than just friends, find a magic flower that will turn them into boys. As boys, they find they are accepted by the “in” crowd more readily than they were as nerdy, queer-looking girls, and one in particular enjoys it far more than the others, describing it as a kind of awakening. “He” hangs out with one bad-boy kind of character, and they take it further than just friends – they have an erotically charged swimming scene and exchange many furtive glances, although the other boy gets violent when he realizes he’s taken it too far. But her friend isn’t having it, and tries to turn into a boy in a bid to win her back.

It sounds like it’s complicated to remember who’s who, and who’s what gender at any particular time, although it wasn’t in the end – the story was fairly simple and at its heart is a love triangle. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was sad, though ambiguous enough that I can be hopeful about it.

The atmosphere is nice, too – they seem to only become boys at night, and turn back after they wake up the next morning, so a lot of the film is shot at night, and has a fantasy-like vibe with lots of autumnal Swedish forest. There were a few things that didn’t quite fit – they had some kind of pagan dancing ceremony with masks, and it seemed to just add atmosphere rather than having any consequence, but I was confused about that. Also, I didn’t catch where their flower came from.

Anyway, this film wasn’t as popular as the last one I watched, but it worked well in my opinion, and I hope it’ll come out on DVD soon so I can recommend it more generally.

Film #190: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

holygrail4directors: Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones
language: English
length: 86 minutes
watched on: 11 June 2016

It’s easily the world’s most overquoted movie, except perhaps its sequel, but I realized recently that I hadn’t watched this in about six or seven years, and I felt like giving it another go – the only reason I’m including it on here today is that the last time is before I started this blog, so I’m trying to follow like, a pattern or something.

I’ve watched it enough times, including the special features, to notice all the areas where they cut corners that weren’t meant to be noticed, as well as the ones that were signposted and danced around – such as the fact that almost all the castles in the movie are the same (I’ve always gotten deja vu with at least one of the scenes, which looks the same as before).

But I’ve also seen it enough times that this viewing didn’t really add anything to it. The only thing is in the scene with the black knight, there are some sound effects that were later used in the game Civilization II, and I only just had the rather obvious revelation that their use in Civ II was probably a reference to Monty Python – not just that they were part of some sound effect bank, like that screaming sound that’s been used in Hollywood pretty much since the introduction of sound in movies.

I also came to the conclusion that Holy Grail is the quintessential road trip movie, just set in medieval times – it’s basically composed of single scenes in which the main characters meet another in a string of characters, monsters, baddies and obstacles. Most are somewhat non-sequitur. But that’s not such a logical leap, nor a bad idea. It allows the group to keep a sort of sketch structure like they’d done on TV, but the story connection throughout keeps it fresher. Life of Brian more effectively tied a single story together without the need for a road trip structure, though. The Meaning of Life, decidedly not my favourite, does away with this totally and is back to straight-up sketches.

Anyway, I’m preaching to the choir here. I’d like to hear from someone who doesn’t like it, actually. I have my reservations – I intensely dislike that it’s so quoted all the time, as I lament the perceived loss of originality in comedy, for example. But I also think it’s still funny, has stood the test of time, and that the situations are still applicable to the modern day – and that’s worrying because it means nothing’s changed since the 60s and 70s.

Book #104: Rivers of London (2011)

riversauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 593 minutes (9 hours 53 minutes)
finished listening on: 25 May 2016

For some reason I kept seeing this in fantasy sections of bookstores and so on for ages, before I actually took the plunge and downloaded it on Audible recently. I’m glad I did.

It’s said to be the story of if Harry Potter joined the Metropolitan police in London, although obviously that’s a gross oversimplification. Some of the same basic elements are there – magic is in fact present in something close to the real world, hidden for hundreds of years by secretive wizards, and the main character undergoes magical training.

The rest is pretty different – the book makes significant use of the London setting and there’s an undercurrent of social issues like race that Rowling never quite managed to properly work into Harry Potter. Rowling seems to like retroactively declaring, for example, that Hermione might be black or that Dumbledore is gay without ever mentioning it in the series, while Aaronovitch comes straight in with a mixed-race main character, called Peter Grant, and lets it roll from there.

The title of the book comes from the various characters who are personifications of the various rivers of London, including a feud between Father Thames, a druid from pre-Roman times representing the upper stretches of the river, and Mother Thames, an African matriarch representing the modernity of metropolitan London, that the main character is tasked with sorting out. It gets weird from there. Needless to say, London as a place is essential to the book, and it’s described very vividly.

Another big difference with Harry Potter is that the mechanisms for producing magic are described in detail, and it’s obviously not just some innate ability whose complications and implications are not really expounded upon much. In fact, the main character tries hard to study magic scientifically, and doesn’t get very far into working out what it actually is – presumably later books in the series will go into further depth with that.

I enjoyed a lot of the characters in the book, and I found that the narrator of the audiobook (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is very skilled with using accents, especially those native to London – which is good when they’re also central to the narrative. It’s important to be able to hear the difference between Peter and his “master”, for example, who has a clipped old-fashioned RP accent. I’m still not sure that people in the real world say “guv’nor”, though – I’ve only ever heard this when there’s some kind of Victorian plot. But I can sort of forgive it here because of all the ghosts and olde worlde plot.

The plot gets a bit weird towards the end, with the introduction of the main mystery plot, which actually isn’t directly related to the Rivers of the title – having concurrent plots like this is a gamble by the author, but he manages to make it work. The ending is good, and develops some of the characters in very unexpected ways. A love triangle running through the book is almost completely smashed at the end for the strangest of reasons, and it works.

It’s funny, it has good characters and a fast paced plot, and it was so steeped in UK culture it made me feel a connection with home again, and I appreciated that a lot. I’d recommend it.

Book #91: A Natural History of Dragons (2013)

ba2i-square-1536Author: Marie Brennan
Language: English
Length: 592 minutes (9 hours 52 minutes)
Finished listening on: 9 October 2015

Audible had a promotion on audiobooks back in September or October – they offered two books for the price of one, and there was a book on my wishlist on the list of eligible books. This book was the freebie, essentially – it had been between this, and a Dawn French book with mixed reviews.

This book is a fantasy memoir told by the fictional famous naturalist Lady Trent, who specializes in dragons. Much of the book, therefore, concerns dragons, but this might be misleading: the main focus is probably the political situation of her world, which is a cypher of Victorian Europe with exotic names like Scyrland and Vystrana (those names are probably spelled wrong: such is the peril of only “reading” audiobooks).

Confusingly, the title of the book refers to a book in the setting about dragons, which sets off the narrator’s interest in childhood, but that because she’s a girl, she’s not really allowed to access (being precocious, she sneaks it out of her father’s study). I must admit it took me a while to realize this, as I was expecting a longer story, or more details about the dragons. The physiology of dragons is well-explored in parts, though, and the author tries hard to reconcile the idea of such a large animal being able to fly by describing a wholly new kind of skeleton.

The narration is quite funny in places, and the audiobook’s reader suits the role well. It’s told from the perspective of the older Lady Trent recounting a story of her youth. It’s implied early on that the world stretches out beyond the bounds of the story, especially when the narrator mentions her other (also fictional) books and tells the reader they should read those to get a fuller picture. I always appreciate touches like that in books.

The political situation, as I mentioned, is very well imagined – colonialism is definitely a force in this world, and it mirrors the real situation on Earth. Ultimately, we only get tantalizing glances of this, but the book does go into detail about the gender politics of the world, pretty much a given when your main character is a woman in a historical(-ish) setting – in fact, in doing so it matched the last book I read (The Privilege of the Sword) well, as many of the themes there were also about that.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where Vystrana, the main setting of the book, is supposed to represent (since Scyrland is a very clear cypher of England). At first I thought it might be India, just based on the sound of the word, and the mountainous setting that is originally reminiscent of the Himalayas, but later I decided it must be either Russia or somewhere like Transylvania, based on the Slavic-sounding names. I think it would have been better if the author had spent a little more time making the country its own thing, rather than just being based on a real place – but this isn’t a huge complaint, as there is a good amount of world-building overall.

Despite these small flaws, I enjoyed the book a lot, and as I mentioned, it’s tantalizing! I now quite want to read the next book in the series. We’ll see, anyway.

Book #84: Stardust (1998)

stardustAuthor: Neil Gaiman
Language: English
Length: 382 minutes (6 hours 22 minutes)
Finished listening on: 15 April 2015

Oops… what with a family wedding recently I’ve kind of let this hobby slide. And maybe it’s only me who cares, but I actually finished this before the last book I reviewed, and somehow they got mixed up. At least the number is correct! It’s been a while, so welcome back everyone.

Today I’m going to think about the book Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Stardust was previously a movie that I watched on a plane a couple of years ago on a whim having known nothing about it. This time it was also a reintroduction of sorts to audiobooks, as I renewed my subscription to Audible again recently (managing somehow to grab a three month half price deal).

First off I want to say that it’s disappointing that there were no cross-dressing pirates in the book – there were pirates though, at least. In fact, I think the same goes for a lot of this: it’s that rare book that suited being made into a film, as that lent it a particular visual style that it didn’t have in the written form.

I’m sure that Gaiman’s descriptions are perfectly adequate, but the book was pretty short and has somewhat of a road trip structure to it, as the characters travel across the land of Fairy, so it darts around very quickly between different scenes and situations, without pausing much for breath.

Of course, the book does allow an insight to the characters’ minds that a film doesn’t afford its viewers, and basically it was fine. I think I possibly understand why this book and movie aren’t so well known or aren’t Gaiman’s most popular, however, and I guess that’s how cutesy it is. The saccharine central relationship almost got a bit much, and the main character insufferable for being unable to detect it.

As a piece of fantasy, incidentally, I think it works very well. I’d recommend reading it, overall. Whatever flaws it has are mitigated by the short length.

Book #56: Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean (2005)

vampiratesauthor: Justin Somper
length: 428 minutes
language: English
finished listening on: 2 April 2014

I downloaded a whole batch of audiobooks via the Humble Bundle recently. Unfortunately, they’re of vastly varying quality, and I had a couple of false starts, which I still haven’t finished. But this was the first one I finished, as the story was actually interesting, set in a kind of hybrid fantasy-sci fi world. It’s either young adult or children’s fiction, to be fair, so I didn’t think it was particularly high quality, but it held my interest during a long cycle ride, so I stuck with it.

The story involves two children, twins, who are separated during a storm. One ends up with a regular pirate ship, while the other ends up with the deadly vampire pirates, or vampirates. In a sense this is about as high-concept as you can get with fantasy: vampires mixed with pirates, and that makes the premise an easy sell.

Since there are two main characters, the plot switches back and forth between them like a soap opera. The girl, who ends up with the vampires, has her story unfold more slowly, as it takes her a while to twig that these strange men who keep her hidden away from the prying outside world and don’t go outside during the daytime are in fact the vampirates she heard about in her father’s nursery rhymes.

Beyond that, the book is fairly predictable, although there are some tense scenes where she has to avoid being eaten by the evil vampires (as opposed to the captain, who seems to be benevolent), but to be honest, her brother’s story is even more unmemorable in the details, but his at least introduces a host of varied and interesting characters.

The setting was mildly interesting, although only mentioned in passing: it seems to be in a postapocalyptic world 500 years in the future, where there has been a big flood, covering all the major cities. I detected a bit of an environmental theme there, although again it’s only mentioned in passing and not fully expanded on. Of course, this leads to a world in which sea travel is very common and pirates really have the opportunity to rule the waves, although it doesn’t really explain why the pirates tended to be so much like the swashbuckling stereotype of the 18th century.

It was fine, overall. I liked it enough to continue with it, and although it did drag at certain points, it wasn’t long, so it was easy enough to finish, especially since it was the spring cherry blossom season and I was going cycling a lot at the time. I don’t know if I liked it enough to continue with the series, however. Certainly not at the prices demanded by “Recorded Books”, the audiobook seller that provided it for the Humble Bundle – they seem to require an average of $60 per audiobook, far over my budget, and mystifying given that Audible sells them for an average of £15 per audiobook, without a subscription that would make it even cheaper. I’ve still got a few to try and work through from the Humble Bundle, but a lot of them are pretty atrocious, so it’s becoming difficult and I’m slowing down or becoming unenthused by the prospect. Let’s see how far I get, anyway.