If you prefer your thrillers dark and literary with a big side order of intricate twists and achingly real characters, but have yet to read a book by Gillian Flynn, I have one word for you. Congratulations! See, it is my firm belief - and I have the likes of Stephen King on my side here - that contemporary crime just doesn't get any better than Flynn. Her first two novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are not only two of the best crime novels I've read this decade - but also two of the best books, full stop. Now, do I have your attention?
Good. If you like your thrillers all dark and literary and twisty (who doesn't?) and already consider yourself a card carrying Gillian Flynn fan (again, who doesn't?), you will be pleased to know that the "congratulations!" part also applies to you. Flynn's third novel, Gone Girl, just hit the stores - and it is just as good as the previous ones! Flynn gave her more senior crime writing peers a serious run for their money with her first two books, and if there is any justice in this world, Gone Girl will be her big breakthrough novel. I’m talking Hollywood movie, more literary awards, book clubs, New York Times bestseller list, the works. Because, as I’m sure many L’Oréal models would agree, she’s worth it. Seriously, Gillian Flynn deserves to be read by, well, everyone. At least everyone who is interested in well written, compelling literature with a darkly sinister finish. (Then again: who isn’t...?) Flynn’s novels are standalones but definitely share some character traits, raw, exquisite language and complex female protagonists being two of them. Oh, and darkness, obviously. As her arguably best novel to date (and yes, it is the one I named my Swedish book blog after) suggests, Gillian Flynn knows some dark, dark places, and she is not afraid to take us there. In the acknowledgments section of Dark Places, Flynn thanks her husband for still sleeping next to her with the lights off. If I were Mr Flynn, I might consider sleeping with a night light after having read Gone Girl. I don’t want to give anything away, but Gillian Flynn has a very, very disturbed mind. Needless to say, I mean this as the highest praise possible.
Gone Girl is a tense, stylistically flawless relationship thriller where nothing - and I mean NOTHING - is as it seems. I will keep the plot info to a bare minimum, as the many twists and turns are part of the novel’s appeal. I can, however, reveal that the two main characters are called Nick and Amy. They have been married for almost five years when Amy suddenly disappears from their suburban Missouri home, leaving Nick bereft and shocked. As police investigates Amy’s disappearance and the press has a field day with every new development, Nick is even more shocked to learn what Amy has said about him. Why, for instance, has Amy told people that she is afraid of him? And - most importantly - what has happened to her?
Flynn is no stranger to intricate plots or tables being turned when you least expect them to. Having said that, plot wise, Gone Girl is by far her most elaborate to date. It positively brims with twists and unexpected developments, and I can guarantee that many a brow will be furrowed and many a “what the...?!” uttered as Flynn deftly switches narratives, navigating from he to she, then to now... and beyond. I literally had to hold on to my seat on at least one occasion.
As you may have gathered by now, Gone Girl is another winner. The only downside to having read it is that I now have to wait several years for a new Gillian Flynn novel. That is a downside I can live with, though, at least as long as Flynn continues to deliver books of this calibre.
Imagine a world where you can travel from sun to sun in wooden ships, without worrying about space suits since all of space is filled with air. Imagine a world without planets, with spinning town wheels to emulate gravity to keep humans – descended from us planet dwellers – healthy in a free fall environment. Then imagine that all kinds of technology that we have invented in roughly the latest 100 years (and kinds not invented yet) are disabled: no electricity, no electronics, no advanced nanotech or biotech.
You get a wonderfully strange environment. This is the setting of the Virga series by Karl Schroeder. Virga is a huge bubble world, filled with air and isolated from the surrounding universe. Many of the inhabitants are unaware of the nature of Virga and the existence of an outside. Here you get far future adventure with steampunk level technology.
This is a major worldbuilding exercise. Take a look at the beautiful cover images to tickle your sense of wonder a little bit. (There is going to be a graphic novel of the first Virga book, Sun of Suns. I wonder what that will look like!)
Worlds with some of these features have been created by others in science fiction. There are perhaps never any really new ideas. One recent example is Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds (which I haven't read). In his story more advanced technologies can only function in the higher levels of a towerlike world. The Virga series develops these ideas with causes and consequences in an interesting way, perhaps deeper than anything before.
Ashes of Candesce concludes the Virga series, consisting of five books. According to Karl Schroeder himself, the books are written to stand alone as much as possible. The first three are tied together in one story arc: Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce (these first two are also collected in one volume as Cities of the Air ) and Pirate Sun. Here the focus is on life, struggles, intrigues and battles within Virga. The final two books, The Sunless Countries and Ashes of Candesce open up to the outside, which is dominated by something called Artificial Nature. Virga is threatened, and the stakes are high: it's about the continued existence of humans, and perhaps of any embodied intelligence at all.
Full disclosure: I haven't read all of the Virga books, so my description relies partly on back cover descriptions, reviews and the author's website. Now, I'm sure I will have to get hold of the first three books. The setting fascinates me, and I want to inhabit Virga a little bit longer. Still, I can testify that it's possible to follow the story without starting from the beginning of the series.
One of the intriguing things about Virga concerns how and why someone would want to construct a place like this. The mechanism suppressing advanced technologies is contained in Candesce, the central "sun" of Virga. The control of Candesce is the ultimate prize of Virga. Of course there are obvious drawbacks with not being able to use all known technology. No unchallenged romantic low-tech bliss. People die, when they really would not have to. So there must be an important advantage, but what? Why did someone invent something like Candesce? Exploring this, and the struggle between various groups, the story also touches interesting questions like the relationship between mind and body.
My favourite character in this book is Keir, who starts out as a mystery even to himself. He knows that he is losing memories and knowledge, but he doesn't know why. In the end his secrets turn out to be very important for the solution of the conflict. He comes from a world outside Virga, and through his eyes the good and the bad aspects of life in Virga stand out in sharp relief. It's also touching to follow Keir as he loses the function of his neural implant system, the scry, which has always provided him with augmented reality information and extended memory functions.
This is an example of one of my favourite things in science fiction: how it can make the familiar strange and wonderful. Like biological memory, and how to use it. It's not necessarily optimal, but it is something that I use all the time never reflecting over the special experience. This gave me little kicks of sense of wonder for a couple of days, and at the same time made me a bit frustrated with the shortcomings of my own powers of recollection. But of course, we all use extended memory: writing, photography, sound recordings and so on. Which we also tend to take for granted.
Karl Schroeder is definitely an author to watch. I might even take a look at his earlier works, things he wrote before Virga.
Last week, the UK edition of Harlan Coben’s new standalone novel Stay Close was published. I thought I’d mark the occasion by paying tribute to one of my all-time favourite thriller writers. Already read all of Coben’s books? Do not fret, m’dears - I’ll throw in a couple of similarly thrilling reads for you! Some new(ish), some slightly older, but all deeply, deeply readable. Ready? Here we go.
Helena’s Top 10 of the Month: Ten top-notch thrillers that will keep you turning the pages until you’ve devoured the whole thing!
1. Tell No One - Harlan Coben
Coben’s breakthrough novel is still his best (although, ever the optimist, I can’t help hoping that Stay Close will be even better). Here’s what you need to do in case you haven’t read it yet: get the book. (You know where, right?) Cancel all plans. Take a day or two off. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably with energy-boosting snacks and drinks within reaching distance, because baby, you’re not going to want to stop reading until you’ve finished the entire book.
2. Just One Look - Harlan Coben
This 2004 standalone is a rather good example of Coben’s ability to combine a deeply recognisable everyday setting with hypnotic tension. I remember reading it on a beach in the Caribbean and hardly even looking up to take in the gorgeous views until I had read the very last page.
3. Caught - Harlan Coben
Last year’s standalone from the ever prolific Coben was actually the best one in quite a while in my ever so humble opinion. Also, if I’m not mistaken, this is the book where an acquaintance from Coben’s Myron Bolitar makes an appearance.
3. No Time For Goodbye - Linwood Barclay
You’ve probably caught on by now: I really, really like Harlan Coben. So much, in fact, that I sometimes wish there could be more authors just like him: authors who team up the truly mundane with the truly unthinkable and, in doing so, create pageturner magic. When I stumbled across Linwood Barclay’s first standalone thriller, I couldn’t help but feel that I had won the lottery.
4. Never Look Away - Linwood Barclay
Another winner from Barclay, dealing with secrets, trust (and lack thereof) and whether you can ever truly know someone. Gave me the chills.
5. Fragile - Lisa Unger
This was my first novel by Lisa Unger, but it certainly won’t be my last. If you enjoy the little subgenre I like to call suburban thrillers, you will most definitely enjoy this engrossing tale of a missing girl and a tightly knit community coming undone in the aftermaths of the disappearance. Great characterisation.
6. City of the Sun - David Levien
It has been a while since I read Levien’s debut novel, but I remember being thoroughly gripped - and feeling somewhat queasy as I put it down.
7. Don’t Breathe a Word - Jennifer McMahon
Deep, dark Vermont woods, a captivating mystery from the past coming back to haunt the main characters - and fairies (the evil kind)! What’s not to love?
8. Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn’s novels are not only some of the best thrillers I’ve read in recent years; they are also some of the best books I’ve read in recent years, full stop.
9. Dark Places - Gillian Flynn
That’s right: I named my own blog after a Gillian Flynn novel. Because she’s that awesome. Now read her books, and make sure to look out for book number three, Gone Girl, due out in May.
10. Before I Go to Sleep - S.J. Watson
Imagine waking up every morning with no idea of who you are, where you are, or how you got there. Imagine having to rely on a stranger - albeit a stranger who keeps telling you to trust him - in order to regain your memories. This is a reality for Christine, the protagonist of S.J. Watson’s mesmerising debut. Original and truly unputdownable, Before I Go to Sleep will keep you guessing until the end. Highly recommended.
A short introduction (but maybe you have already seen me on Facebook): I am Joris, I'm 18 years old and I live in Holland. I am having a internship at The English Bookshop in Uppsala for 20 weeks, this is a part of my study: Marketing and communication.
Now I have had two weeks of internship at The English Bookshop. The first week was a kind of introduction week, I got to know everybody, and I got to know the shop. My first impression was that the people who are working here are very open and friendly. It feels very calm to work at The English Bookshop, even though it can sometimes be pretty busy.
What I noticed is that many of the customers are more like friends to the bookshop, than customers. Many people (customers and workers at The English Bookshop), know eachother. So it's always nice if people walk in, not only because they buy books, but also because it's a bit like a friendly visit.
A part of the second week I have worked at home. I have done a marketing investigation, and together with Jan we will look what exactly with the marketing I can help with.
I have enjoyed the first two weeks of internship at The English Bookshop. And now I even have my own blog! :)
No this is not one of those mashups, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This is an original story, but with the setting, story-line and style heavily inspired by the works of Jane Austen. Except it's set in an alternate Regency period where magic is an art generally practiced by educated women.
There are similarities between reading very old novels and reading fantasy. A novel written 200 years ago is set in a very different world from the one we see around us. Reading Jane Austen can be a bit like reading fantasy, just because I have to imagine a world which is strange to me. Historical fiction is perhaps even more fantasy-like, since it's written with a contemporary reader in mind, who needs to be gently introduced to unfamiliar surroundings.
So writing fantasy as if it were a novel from an older time is not a big step (and I don't think Mary Robinette Kowal is the first to try). Still, there are many ways it could possibly go wrong. One challenge is to make it all seem natural, to make the magic an integrated part of the story and not just an exotic element for decoration. In Shades of Milk and Honey this works very well.
Another challenge, which Kowal knows how to handle, is the cultural difference between us and our ancestors. Historical fiction sometimes suffers from the problem of a protagonist who seems to be a time traveler from the age when the story was written. This happens in fantasy, too: characters have a mindset which doesn't seem natural in the world where they are supposed to have grown up.
This is obviously a story from a world where the only important thing for a young woman is to get married. The protagonist, Jane Ellsworth, is already an old maid and convinced that she is not beautiful enough and will never marry. Being talented in music and glamour does not matter. She hopes to be the governess of her sister's children, and that's all. The lives of the Ellsworth girls seem limited from my point of view, and the possibilities few.
I braced myself for having the illusion shattered and modern sensibilities to break through, but somehow this never happened. Mary Robinette Kowal brings the story to a conclusion that can satisfy also a reader in the year 2012, while still staying within the rules she has set for her story. Magically, it works.
Sadly, I haven't read enough Jane Austen to be a good judge of how close Kowal stays to the original source of inspiration. According to a blurb on the cover also someone from the Jane Austen Centre thinks that it "could easily fit into Austen's canon, except of course for the inclusion of magic".
It's no spoiler to tell you Jane Ellsworth, of course, gets a man in the end (but I'm leaving it to you to find out who it is).
The sequel, Glamour in Glass will be out this spring. I imagine that it will have a different feeling, since Jane is already married. It's about what happens after, and it's not so obvious what direction this story will take. I think I'll want to read it just to find out what kind of opportunities there will be for a woman like her, in her age and world.
Baby, it’s cold outside. As we put on yet another layer of thermal underwear - not much of a fashion statement, I’m afraid, but a dire necessity in these sub-zero times – and brace ourselves before we go out to shovel some more snow, it is easy to grow pessimistic, perhaps even start thinking about the neverending winter in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Hey, at least we got to celebrate Christmas!) Do not despair, though: spring will come, and instead of pining for what we cannot have at the moment – sun, warmth, a life without thermal underwear – I suggest you embrace the cold and check out a few books that, in one way or another, deal with arctic temperatures.
My first arctic tip is Elizabeth Hand’s brand new novel Available Dark, where we are reunited with the inimitable Cassandra Neary of Generation Loss fame. This time, our little corner of the world (well, sort of) gets a visit from "your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer" (Hand’s own description of her literary creation – you now know why I love both ladies, right?) as Cass is sent to Helsinki to evaluate a series of disturbing but eerily beautiful photographs on behalf of a shady collector. Of course, death and destruction follows, and Cass soon finds herself on the run from a potential manslaughter charge. Meth-fuelled and justifiably paranoid, Cass ends up in snowy Iceland, where she encounters former lover Quinn and becomes increasingly entangled in a twisted series of events that, among other things, feature Norse mythology, black metal, and murder.
If you enjoyed Generation Loss, you will adore this. Not only is Available Dark a top notch thriller of the dark, literary, and deliciously twisted variety, it is also further proof of Hand’s seemingly effortless ability to create unorthodox and deeply fucked up yet thoroughly believable female characters that make Lisbeth Salander seem like Mother Teresa. Also? It is funny as hell. The line "It all made me miss the cheery optimism of The Smiths" is one of many laugh-out-loud moments, and while we’re on that note (so to speak), may I add that all the references to music, whether punk, indie, or black metal are deeply knowledgeable. I even had my black metal freak of a husband double check some of the facts, and he was impressed.
You probably guessed it already, but I really enjoyed Available Dark, on so many levels. The diversity is one of the many things I – here we go again.. – like so much with Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books. Are you a crime buff? Why, then you’ll definitely appreciate the page turner aspect of the book. Black metal fan? See above. Generally into well written, edgy prose with compelling and multi-layered characters? I believe we have a match. So yes, the fan girl has spoken (or chirped, more like it), and is now chirping "can’t wait for another fix of my favourite prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer!". Will, in fact, continue to chirp until it is revealed that Elizabeth Hand is working on a third instalment of the Cass Neary saga. Only a matter of time, I hope, although I am happy to announce that another book by Hand, a young adult novel called Radiant Days, will be out in April. In the meantime, if you feel like exploring the addictive, genre defying brilliance that is Elizabeth Hand further, try Waking the Moon, Saffron and Brimstone, or Illyria. Oh, and Generation Loss, obviously. You will undoubtedly enjoy Available Dark without having read Generation Loss first, but since it is only a matter of time before you are as enamoured with Cass Neary as I am, and since Available Dark does have some mild spoilers regarding the outcome of the first book, I suggest you pick up Generation Loss first and then read Available Dark back to back.
Arctic pick number two is Dan Simmons’ epic horror novel The Terror, loosely based on the ill-fated Franklin expedition in 1845. Snow, ice, a lost/doomed expedition, unspeakable horrors… Add a touch of gangrene and I believe we have a winner.
If you like your horror on the gently creeping yet haunting M.R. James spectrum of things, do make sure to read Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. It is the tale of loner Jack Miller, who joins an expedition to the Arctic Cirle and the remote, supposedly haunted Gruhuken bay in an attempt to escape his lonely life in London. However, the expedition soon turns into something other than Jack had imagined and once settled in the ice cold wilderness, Jack and his colleagues soon realise that all the ghost stories are true… I read Dark Matter in one spine-tingling sitting and chances are you will, too. It is the perfect ghost story, really, with a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere. Ideal for chilly winter nights.
Perhaps you already read Graham Joyce’s Silent Land when it was December’s book of the month, but I’m going to pass on the tip anyway. The premise of Joyce’s award winning novel is an intriguing one: a couple skiing in the French Pyrenees is buried under a flash avalanche. After having dug themselves out, they find the resort completely abandoned. It is almost as though the entire outside world has been emptied of people, of noise, of life… Silent Land is one of those books you almost have to pry yourself away from. Unputdownable, and beautifully written, too.
Finally, the first book in Cardinal and Delorme series, Forty Words for Sorrow, takes place in February, which in Algonquin Bay, Canada, is a snowbound, quiet, and very, very cold place. If you haven’t read Blunt, you’re in for a treat. He always delivers great plots, and plenty of atmosphere and tension along the way. Blunt’s latest Cardinal/Delorme thriller, Crime Machine, is also a snow-filled affair, so there’s no shortage of arctic weather and snowy seclusion here.
So many books, so little time. So much work, so little play. So much soul numbing January dread, so little sleep. So much darkness, so little vitamin D. And so on.
Nope, this is not going to be one of those long, rambling reviews you’re probably used to from me by now. Instead, I’m going to try something new. Here is a list of some of the books and authors that are currently on my mind, night stand, or to read list. Enjoy!
A new novel featuring the lovely Ruth Galloway is always a reason to celebrate, and if you liked Griffiths three previous novels about cat loving, Bruce Springsteen blasting, slightly overweight archaeologist Ruth Galloway, I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy this one, too.
WILL SOON BE READING
Okay, probably preaching to the choir here, but I do love how English Bookshop’s monthly book club choices always inspire me to read authors and genres I probably wouldn’t have discovered on my own. Please Look After Mom may well be the first Korean novel I’ve ever read, but hopefully far from my last. Since I’m a total cry baby, my eyes teared up just by reading the description on the back cover. Note to self: get Kleenex.
Have adored everything I’ve read by Haigh thus far, and her latest novel appears to be more of the stuff that made The Condition so immensely readable: a truly captivating story, beautiful language and a sort of literary readability that I, personally, always look for in a novel.
Valente I will be reading this highly acclaimed young adult fantasy novel for my book club (no relation to the UEB one), which is more or less 100% devoted to fantasy, SF, or horror - and 100% awesome. Looking forward to reading and discussing this!
LOOKING FORWARD TO READING
Elizabeth Hand recently called it one of the best horror novels she’s ever read. Works for me.
I know next to nothing about this novel, other than the fact that I like the sound of a thriller set in a small, mysterious college town. Also, several reviewers have hinted that there are several big twists in store. Methinks a good old page turner with a shocking ending might be just what this poor little vitamin D-deprived creature needs. I’ll let you know what I think, either here or on my other blog.
“A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols” - need I say more?
MIGHT BE READING (OKAY, DEFINITELY WILL BE READING EVENTUALLY, AFTER HAVING FINISHED MOANING ABOUT JUST HOW MUCH BETTER THE SCARPETTA BOOKS WERE BACK IN THE 90’S)
Cornwell Admittedly, the Scarpetta series peaked in the mid-90’s, never truly recovered from the stinking atrocity that was Book of the Dead and probably deserves to end up on on a morgue slab (one of those austere stainless steel ones that so often frequent the Scarpetta books). I mean, I know this on an intellectual level. Still, a small part of me refuses to give up on Scarpetta and her (increasingly erratic) posse and will probably be with them until the bitter end. And the last couple of books have been somewhat of an improvement. So yes, I will read this, after having done a fair amount of moaning. It is part of the deal when it comes to reading Cornwell these days.
You might like this book if you enjoy:
- action-filled thriller type plots
- time travel
- science fiction stories with philosophical implications, but not too much
- doom and apocalypse
Keep reading if you would like to know my thoughts on Final Days in a context of hard science fiction.
The last third or so of Final Days was a fun read, but for a hundred pages in the middle I kept reading mostly for the grazing cars. Cool gadgets help a lot when I fail to feel really involved in the plot.
As the title reveals, it's a story about the end of a world. A mysterious alien artefact is lost, and those who know about it have reasons to believe that it's going to destroy all life on Earth. At the same time, there are political tensions over the access to the wormhole technology that allows transfer to the space colonies in other star systems. The array of wormhole gates is located on the moon, and controlled by the very powerful organisation Array Security and Immigration (ASI), based in the Western Coalition. Saul Dumont is an ASI agent who gets involved in it all, partly as a consequence of his failures.
I found Saul a somewhat colourless character, despite his mild drug addiction and his personal problems. He thinks he is investigating the sabotage of the gate to the Galileo colony, where his wife and daughter live. For ten years, no-one has been able to travel between Earth and Galileo, and Saul is eager to find out who is responsible for separating him from his family. What his superiors really want to get is details about the imminent destruction and its cause, and therefore Saul finds himself at the centre of the events threatening billions of people. There is a lot of action and violence, but I didn't really care about Saul himself.
He gets more interesting in the second half of the book, when he interacts with people in situations not always involving a lot of running and fighting, and reveals more complex feelings. And he gets to ride a Saturn rocket, which is actually kind of cool in a future where very few actually travel through space.
That detail with the Saturn rocket struck a chord in me, which made me a bit worried. There is a strong streak of nostalgia in some flavours of hard science fiction, with authors who clearly seem to think that the future was better in the past. I'm talking about the kind of technology romanticism that seems uncomfortable with the developments in society and comes together with a certain political conservatism. Like Michael Flynn in Firestar. He describes a return to space coupled with a kind of soft revolution that transforms our whole culture, art and literature and everything, to something easier and more understandable. The effect is to make him look like he skipped a couple of decades and just cannot comprehend the world he lives in. I'm not sure I want to be like that. Still, I can't help being charmed by the old fashioned rocket. It makes a wonderful contrast between the easy everyday travel between celestial bodies in the portrayed future, and the much more heroic (i.e. uncomfortable) journeys of the early space pioneers.
Also, Gary Gibson avoids getting overtly nostalgic about the Right Stuff, and never gets ideologically annoying. (There are actually interesting post-colonial issues in this future, where the wormhole technology gives the Western Coalition control over the colonies, while the Pan-Asian Congress demands equal control and their own gates. I like it when Earth is described as a whole, multi-faceted planet.)
Still, Final Days is definitelyhard SF. The story is much more about the physics of wormhole gates and the technology of the future, and about time travel paradoxes and free will and the destiny of humanity, than about a few specific characters. Perhaps the most memorable person in the story is the elderly Amy, who together with her husband runs the space tourism company owning the Saturn replica rocket. That Amy makes a reference to a "cold equation" tells us that Gary Gibson very much knows that he's a part of the conversation in hard science fiction. ("The Cold Equations" is a much debated short story by Tom Godwin, first published in 1954.) The story is also full of action and suspense. Will mankind survive? And at the end, I actually cannot be sure that Saul did the right thing. It's an interesting situation. I must say that I also enjoyed the attempt at exposing the inherent problems with wormhole travel. This is a very commonly used trope in science fiction. One example is how Peter F. Hamilton uses wormholes to connect the planets in his Commonwealth universe, another is the "farcasters" in Hyperion by Dan Simmons that allow the river Tethys to cross several planets. Still, the fact that this kind of faster-than-light travel allows for certain kinds of time travel and all sorts of paradoxes is usually just forgotten. In Final Days the gates are even called CTCs, for "closed timelike curves", a term referring to the description of a phenomenon like a wormhole within the theory of relativity. Don't worry about the details, Gary Gibson is not weighing down the story with lengthy explanations, but it's still an important plot point. (There's the conversation again. Science fiction collectively exploring common tropes.)
I also found it sort of refreshing to read about a future with recognisable humans and technology in the year 2235. The augmented reality of Final Days is not very far from what we can do now, with a smart phone, but much more integrated with daily life. Most people wear contact lenses containing their personal data ("ubiquitous profile", including money) and communications device. They also display the desired amount of information and helpful instructions in the wearer's field of view.
It's not our immediate future, but still a world just a step beyond ours. No backups of your personality, no quasi-magical nanobot utility fogs, no emerging intelligences on the internet, no singularity. I guess I sometimes get a bit tired of those things, and like variation.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the grazing cars was another piece of future technology that I found fascinating. Kind of cute, but a bit incongruous with the rest of the worldbuilding. It actually doesn't seem to be a very good idea.
A second hire car was parked near Jeff's own, where it shuffled closer to the verge and began tearing up the same patch of grass, sucking the biomass deep into its guts prior to converting it to ethanol.
Can you imagine hauling around large amounts of concentrated biomass for the cars to eat -- instead of just bringing the ethanol from a centralised distillery? And how do you deal with the waste? You know what a street looks like where horses are used.
Still, if it hadn't been for the cars I might have stopped reading before getting to the good parts. That's hard SF for you.
As anyone who has seen Frank Capra’s classic 1946 tearjerker It’s a Wonderful Life, aka THE Christmas movie, will know, Christmas, from a fictional point of view, is a time for redemption, for reminiscence, for finally getting it right. It is also that time of the year when no one, not even a self-confessed literary badass who decided to name her own blog Dark Place just to show how much she enjoys the dark side of fiction, needs to feel ashamed of getting in touch with their softer, more sentimental side. In fact, a certain degree of sappiness is mandatory in order to get through the vast majority of books, movies, and songs dealing with Christmas. Confession time: I adore Christmas. Always have, always will. No sooner have the Christmas lights on Regent Street been lit than I start lighting candles like a maniac, playing Phil Spector’s Christmas album on repeat, drinking glögg, munching gingerbread (when I found out that our new house, which we moved into last Christmas, is virtually next door to one of Sweden’s biggest gingerbread manufacturers, I was not surprised...), preparing Christmas wish lists and throwing myself into the festive spirit.
For me, this festive spirit means saying sod off to the kind of stuff I relish eleven months of the year. Begone, dark, edgy thrillers! Sayonara, ghost stories and all things horror! Come January, I will take you all in my (unusually plump) arms and tell you how much I have missed you, but right now, it’s all about Christmas. Which means throwing my usual contempt for sappiness out the window.
What better, then, than to immerse oneself in Christmas spirit in literary form? Every year, a multitude of new works of fiction deals with Christmas in one way or another. I shall from now on refer to such books as Christmas lit. Ali Harris has written one of the best efforts this year, I’d say. Her debut novel Miracle on Regent Street is the story of Evie, who has spent the past two years toiling away in the stock room of Hardy’s, a once grand, now half-forgotten department store in central London. Despite doing a stellar job and being truly passionate about Hardy’s, she never seems to get promoted to the shop floor. On top of that, all her colleagues insist on calling her Sarah, which was the former stock room girl’s name. When Evie finds out just how much trouble Hardy’s is in, she decides to do everything she can in order to rescue the department store. Is it too late for a Christmas miracle...?
Miracle on Regent Street is as instantly comforting and addictive as a particularly sweet and frothy gingerbread latte. For most of the year, you prefer your usual strong, black coffee, but ‘tis the season, after all, and if you have a soft spot for warm-hearted, albeit slightly predictable, romantic comedy in a festive setting, look no further. Ali Harris clearly knows how to write, and lines like “Tamsin is pure Essex thoroughbred, complete with fake nails, fake tan, dyed platinum hair and suspiciously perky-looking boobs” ensure several laugh-out-loud moments and make Harris stick out amongst the plethora of - let’s face it - mainly bland and pointless chick lit authors out there today. I came across a blurb where Miracle on Regent Street was compared to Cecelia Ahern’s oeuvre. To that, may I just say “HUMBUG!”. Harris is a much more gifted writer than the lacklustre Ahern, whose 2009 holiday release The Gift was so sugary sweet, even this Christmas maniac came dangerously close to developing diabetes.
Oh, and London in full-on holiday glam has never seemed as irresistible as in Miracle on Regent Street (well, perhaps in Love Actually, then...). In fact, I almost had to handcuff myself to keep myself from logging onto the nearest airline company website and order a one way ticket to London!
In the mood for more festive reads? Read on for more Helena approved Christmas lit! If your name happens to be the Grinch, please stop reading now, for everyone’s safety (including your own).
It's gift-giving season again. The time of year when you want to buy really good things to people you love, and you realize again that you don't really understand their taste in books.
People tend to enjoy different aspects of literature. They talk about things like whether the emphasis is on plot or on character development or on ideas. Some read only stories with supernatural elements of some kind, others hate and avoid everything like that. Sometimes I try to understand what makes someone like a book and I just cannot understand it. You know what I'm talking about. I've been thinking about this a lot; in the end I usually end up making Christmas presents of books I would like to read myself, or just give something mundane like socks.
As a reviewer I cannot give you socks. I'm supposed to tell you, many of you complete strangers (and I don't know the size of your feet anyway), if you would like to read this book or not -- a book that I wasn't able to really enjoy myself.
There are people who love Louis McMaster Bujold and her Miles Vorkosigan books, and I suspect that it's the same kind of readers who like Catherine Asaro. This is just a guess, because I haven't actually read anything by Bujold (yet) for exactly the same reasons that I haven't read Asaro until now: there is nothing in the description of these books that tickles my imagination, the promise of romance puts me off since I'm rarely interested in love stories per se, and it seems complicated to start reading an author who writes so many books set in the same universe and connected into some larger narrative.
The saga of the Skolian empire is not really a series, but a number of books set in a common future history. There was actually no problem to start with the latest book, and follow the story. Of course there were some massive infodumps in the early part of the book to bring the readers into the larger story and explain who everyone is and wants. This definitely slows down the reading, but I never had any problems following the story or even understanding what kind of relationship all of the characters have to each other.
At the beginning of Carnelians we are thrown into a situation of precarious peace between interstellar empires. The situation gets more tense when the brother of the Skolian leader, who is also a rock singer, apparently transmits a very angry song called "Carnelians Finale" (which for political reasons has been forbidden) to the whole universe. This book is actually sort of a sequel to one called Diamond Star, where this rock singer prince, Del, is the protagonist. A fun detail is that Catherine Asaro actually collaborated with a band (Point Valid) to create a sound track for the book, where also "Carnelians Finale" is included.
When this song has been released through the information networks (the "Kyle mesh"), and some assassination attempts have been thwarted, the leaders have to somehow avoid a devastating war. Do you enjoy books with complicated intrigues and political maneuvering? People talk a lot, trying to convince each other to do things, sometimes for other reasons than they state openly. There is power struggle, and everyone is trying to guess the other important people's hidden motives. I tend to be bored by this kind of plot, and it's no more entertaining this time. There aren't even any interesting ideological points to ponder, just one civilization which is much more decadent and cruel and one which consists of telepaths ("psions").
Asaro's books are sometimes described as a mix of hard SF and romance. There is a indeed love story in Carnelians, involving the runaway girl Aliana who also was only character I found interesting. Hard SF, on the other hand, is not how I would describe this work. Of course there are all kinds of advanced technology (nanorobots, semi-sentient neurological implants, smart furniture, rotating space habitats, and so on) but scientific extrapolation is not the point, it's just for local colour.
So you see that this space opera is much more about the opera than about space. Especially since space is not really a factor in the story. Faster than light travel seems to be commonplace, and I actually get no real feeling of physical separation between the star systems. The inhabited universe is also interconnected by the Kyle mesh, a kind of internet with instant communication enabled by telepaths (I think, I actually didn't really understand this).
The part I liked the best is actually the (still kind of cheesy and predictable) subplot about Aliana, the sullen girl on the run from an abusive stepfather who meets a slave boy who has been thrown out with the houshold trash. I guess I find it easier to relate to the street perspective than to what goes on in the court of the emperor.
So, is Carnelians better than a random pair of socks?
If you are like me, this might not be the book for you. If you are mostly interested in relationships and political plots with a bit of adventure thrown in, then maybe this is nice Christmas reading. I can't tell you how it compares to Asaro's earlier work, but the themes are what I expected.
If you have read a lot by Catherine Asaro, let me know what you liked! Maybe I can become a better judge of books I don't like myself.