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Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom

Winter in MadridTitle: Winter in Madrid
Author: C.J. Sansom
Pages: 549
Buy: Book Depository; Waterstones;
Source: Purchased copy
Rating: 5 stars

I recall this book being a recommendation to me as a result of my love for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I subsequently picked this up and was drawn once again into the era during and around the Spanish Civil War, a period and place in history my knowledge of was previously non existent.

This is an excellent novel that has convincing characters and a genuine feeling of authenticity about the conditions in Madrid following the Civil War that evoke the scenes being written and the grimness into your mind. The story line itself has many parallel threads that develop to a conclusion full of suspense and drama.

While it is historical fiction it is also both spy novel and a love story. The historical basis shows the developing political machinations in Europe at the time, with the risk of Spain allying with the Germans against Britain, and the efforts of British diplomats to avoid this by subtle relationship building with key people in the Spanish government.

While all of this may suggest literary espionage in the Le Carré vein, that’s not quite what we get. Sansom deploys a fractured time scheme, moving between past and present: we are back in Harry’s loveless childhood, then in murky 1940s Madrid, where betrayal is the order of the day, or in the public school where Harry and opportunistic Sandy first meet. Similarly, the reader is catapulted from Barbara’s relationships with her lovers Sandy and Bernie to the humiliations of childhood, where unhappiness over her appearance is to mark her for life. But as Winter in Madrid progresses, Sansom adroitly draws the disparate strands of his ambitious saga together.

The effects of the Spanish Civil War on the various classes of people in Spain are documented well and the novel also explores the bitter wounds caused to family and social relationships by the polarisation of the nation into two different sides.

The story is gripping and moves along at a steady pace and you are drawn into caring for the characters and what happens to them. A truly great book.

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The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough

The Darwin ElevatorTitle: The Darwin Elevator
Author: Jason M. Hough
Pages: 484
Buy: Waterstones
Source: Purchased copy
Rating: 4 stars

The Darwin Elevator is broad in scope combining post-apocalypse, first contact, mystery, science fiction, and thriller into one full length novel. To get a sense of the story, you need to know the backstory which won’t spoil the book as I’ll avoid anything too revealing as it is the first of a series (The Dire Earth Cycle).

Chronologically the story begins with the appearance of an alien craft in Earth orbit, a craft which quickly manufactures and connects a space elevator from orbit to Darwin, Australia. Hence, the Darwin Elevator (and here I was thinking before I started reading it had something to do with Charles Darwin and evolution!).

Five years later, no aliens have appeared, but people begin to die in large numbers. A few are left as violent sub-humans, a statistically minisculue amount of people have an immunity to the virus. The only refuge from the virus (nicknamed ‘subs’) is around the elevator, in Darwin. This is due to the elevator broadcasting an ‘aura’ that puts the disease in stasis, or if you remain within the aura, prevents it from occurring. Darwin therefore became a refuge for people fleeing the virus.

After a slow start the narrative becomes intriguing and gathers pace. It combines a survival story with the politics of two separate enclosed societies that rely on one another, the continuing search for just what happened to the human race, and just what the motives of the aliens are.

The story does feel a little rushed and few characters are developed to be broad and encompassing. Skyler, Tania, Russell and Platz perhaps the exceptions, though in truth only Skyler is fully developed. There was an opportunity I feel in the plot where he is away from the centre of events and makes his way back that could have been used to develop him further.

The motivations and full story behind Platz are something that I do hope is revealed in books two and three, as well as the full story behind the aliens. The first book itself is however a ride that evolves into a mystery and thriller set in a science fiction world. You want to know what is happening and why, who is behind this, and what the aliens’ motivations are.

I do however have a couple of problems with the science:

1) The Space Elevator is located in Darwin, Australia. 1,378 km from the equator, where all Space Elevator concepts state that an elevator needs to be situated.

2) The counter-weight for the elevator appears to be at or near geo-stationary orbit, when it should be well beyond that point in space in order to give sufficient tensile strength to stay in place and not rely on compression (which would require a large base gradually thinning as it climbs into the sky).

Still, an enjoyable read and I will be continuing with the rest of the series when I get them.

46 books in 52 weeks

What a great year for reading 2013 was, 46 books in 52 weeks is the most books I’ve read in a single year. Accounting for the fact that I don’t really read at home and that four weeks of annual leave plus a week at Christmas and a week away on business adds up to six weeks without reading, that means I was more or less reading a book a week. Good going considering there were quite a few brick books in there!

Below I’ve summarised what I read during 2013 to give the highlights of the, mainly science fiction, reading world. I’ve split it between Series reads and individual stand-alone novels.

Books read in 2013

Series

I read quite a few series during 2013 as well, finishing the amazing Void Trilogy that continues on from the equally amazing Commonwealth Saga. The Void Trilogy is set 1200 years into the future after the end of Judas Unchained and has some of the same characters such as Paula Myo, Ozzie, and Bradley Johansson. The Void Triology also introduces a fantasy element that is engrossing and which I could easily have read as a book on its own, it is simply that good.

Credit: theunisphere.com

Also read, in its entirely was the Enderverse starting with the fantastic Ender’s Game, continuing with the quite different but very good Speaker for the Dead, and with another four books as well read that are good (except War of Gifts, which was pointless). Now there is controversy surrounding Orson Scott Card’s reprehensible views on homosexuality and whether you should support him, but if I was to avoid all creative types who’s views I didn’t agree with, there wouldn’t be many books or music left for me to enjoy!

As well as the Enderverse, I read 8 books in the Honorverse, all of which differed in quality for me but were broadly similar in how they resulted in Honor coming through and generally being perfect. I get what some reviewers had said when they stopped reading the series because it was too same-y and Honor too flawless. I have currently stopped reading at book 9.

As well as reading Peter Hamilton’s Void Trilogy I also read his first books, the Greg Mandel series, which is absolutely excellent, very different from his later work being focused on a single character perspective and being more of a detective mystery bent set in a science fiction world after a ‘warming’ of the planet that has led to Mediterranean conditions in England and an entirely new system of Governments in the world. I recommend you give them a whirl, starting with Mindstar Rising.

The last series I finished in 2013 was the original Foundation Trilogy by the legend of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, which was very good. He wrote further books set in the same universe but I’ve heard less than great things about those with some saying they ruined the original trilogy.

Fantastic Individual Books

First there was The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom that is a wonderfully moving fable that addresses the meaning of life, and life after death, in a poignant way. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to everyone as I think everyone will take something different from it. Best of all from my perspective is it is about a guy who works at an Amusement Park (Life Goal Number Five: Own a Theme Park).

Picture credit: Goodreads.com

Although Ender’s Game can be read as an individual novel and is definitely a five star novel and one of my favourite’s, the next great non-series book of 2013 was quite a long time later (I read a lot of series books) and is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which is a superb novel about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome and is written from a unique perspective in a very different style, a definite five star book for me (they don’t get handed out frequently) and is currently a play by the National Theatre at the Gielgud Theatre in London. You can read my review written in the style of the book on this very blog.

Credit: National Theatre

My next great novel of my 2013 reading list is The Inverted World by Christopher Priest, I found the book to be fantabidosy. The twist at the end threw me as I didn’t expect it and I found the novel and the concept interesting and clever. This is the second novel I’ve enjoyed by this author and as a result I will hunt down some more. A great book.

I started entering Goodreads Giveaways later in the year and the first book I won was The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison. It is a book I wouldn’t ordinarily have picked up and is a terrific story about a crime committed in Zambia. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have added A Walk Across the Sun to my to-read list and I am looking forward to reading it. You can read my review of The Garden of Burning Sand on this blog.

Image credit: Goodreads

Credit: Goodreads

My last fantastic individual book of the year (although it will be part of a series it stands on its own at the moment) is the Cleansing by Sam

Kates, a Welsh first-time published author who has a great concept and a well written story that really engages the reade

r. Sam is currently working on the follow-up novel ‘The Beacon’ and I am looking forward to reading that sometime in 2014 (hopefully). The book also has a terrific front cover.

Final Days by Gary Gibson

Title: Final Days
Author: Gary Gibson
Pages: 372
Buy: Waterstones
Source: Purchased copy
Rating: 3 Stars

It took reading other people’s reviews to put my finger on just why Final Days didn’t quite ‘do it’ for me. After all it had all the elements that make a good science fiction novel such as a good concept, a future world, elements of dystopia and in the end an apocalypse for humanity on Earth, all thrown together with a bit of a mystery.

Having been strongly recommended Gary Gibson by Kate at For Winter Nights I was a bit underwhelmed without being able to know why, until I read what others thought and their views sparked resonance in my head. The plot is a little chaotic and a lot of the time doesn’t make sense, we don’t know why things are happening or what the motives of characters are, we know little to nothing about major organs of the Final Days ‘world’, the ASI , the Sphere worlds/countries, and such like.

The wormholes being used allow a form of time travel that isn’t in my mind well explained and this forms a major part of the plot. Due to this time travelling, from early on in the book and given that it is stated throughout that the future is set and unalterable, we kind of know what is going to happen and this diminishes significantly the urge to see what happens because for the most part we know, we just don’t know what will happen to the characters.

Do I care what happens to them though? The characters, with the exception of Saul Dumont, are barely developed with almost no discernible personality between them and with goals that aren’t really understandable. Characters are introduced merely as a name, take part in some sort of sub-plot or short arc and then disappear, the novel to me reads like something that needs expanding of the world-building, more plot development and explanation, and better fleshed out characters.

When it came to the end, many things were unresolved and I didn’t feel any attachment to the characters who seem merely there for the big set pieces. It reads like an attempt at Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga that failed to match it for breadth and depth.

One thing I noted from reading other people’s reviews was that one of the people who helped Gary write the book and are credited by him, Ian Sales, gave the book 3 stars in his review of the book on Goodreads, something I found amusing.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefTitle: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Pages: 584
Buy: Asda; Waterstones
Source: Purchased
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who knew that death had a sense of humour?

Not only that but a dry, deadpan humour that is combined with insightful observations about humanity, war, people, and life.

The book is refreshing in the way it is written which for anyone who hasn’t read it, it is narrated by death, and therefore we get to know his humour and observations. Now for a book narrated by Death that covers the Second World War period, in Germany, you might expect it to be dark, moody, depressing. In fact it is humanity and the horrors of the second world war that are causing him (I shall refer to death as ‘him’ for simplicity’s sake) great sadness and despair.

He’d also like to let us know that he does not carry a sickle or a scythe. The hooded black robe is saved for when it’s cold, and that he doesn’t have skull-like facial features.

The story follows that of Liesel a small German girl who is for all intents and purposes orphaned, and goes to live in a small German town with two strangers who will look after her and treat her as their daughter. During the story she will experience trials, tribulations, and learn to cope with what is a harrowing situation.

There is also loss, love, and despair throughout. She also steals some books; so death calls her the Book Thief.

I find this review difficult to write because although I liked a lot about the book, the characters, the writing and the originality of it, I just didn’t think it was a fantastic book that deserved a higher rating from me. I liked it, and I think you will too.

Now there are a lot of people who love this book and think it is fantastic, you might do, for me, I liked it, but I didn’t find it as life-changing or enthralling as others. It is a book that I enjoyed reading but wasn’t desperately trying to finish to find out what happens.

That may not be the case for you, I’d recommend you give it a try.

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30-Second Theories

30-Second Theories:Title: 30-Second Theories
Author: Paul Parsons
Pages: 160
Read: December 2013
Source: Borrowed
Rating: 2 Stars
A book that explains quickly the 50 most thought provoking theories in science. Unfortunately some of them are known to be in error by even the contributors. The diagrams accompanying the text is basic, and features some theories which are questionable at best to be amongst the most ‘thought provoking’.

As an example I cite ‘Complimentary medicine’ which even the contributor Robert Matthews dismisses as ‘hocus pocus’. It also includes theories that have been discredited by recent evidence such as ‘Snowball Earth’, though it could be argued that its inclusion has some merit.

That being said, reading up on the uncertainty principle, quantum entanglement, panspermia and of course schrodinger’s cat was interesting, if brief.

The book certainly highlighted theories to research in more detail as well as given enough of an understanding to get more of the jokes on The Big Bang Theory. 😉

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Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Dark EdenTitle: Dark Eden
Author: Chris Beckett
Pages: 404
Buy: Waterstones; Amazon
Source: Purchased
Rating: 5 stars

There is a quote on the back of my copy of this book from Alison Flood of the Guardian. It perfectly catches my thoughts on the novel and the world that Chris Beckett has built within Dark Eden.

Dark Eden is truly its own world built philosophically, metaphysically, and linguistically into a believable and impressively fascinating world by Beckett. There is an anthropological angle to this and the biological worlds they live on is unique and engaging. The people exist with their own history and with their own customs in a different world longing to return to Earth.

The story is about the descendents of two marooned explorers living on an alien world, an alien world that doesn’t have a sun, but is somehow warm thanks to the planet they live on and the vegetation that grows on the planet extracting warmth from the planet and bringing both heat and light to the surface.

How this would work on a physical level in reality is not something I can answer but it sure makes the world that is Dark Eden both unique and fascinating. The story is written following different individuals living amongst ‘the family’ on a first person basis, switching each chapter between different individuals.

I would say there is largely one main character with a couple of important supporting characters who move the story along. It deals with how humans interact with a world, or not, and how humanity develops in an alien environment with a knowledge and history that encourages longing for the Earth and rescue. It is a novel that combines dystopia, evolution and alien life forms, and does so very well.

In a way the story is a play on Genesis, the first story of the Bible that tells the story of Adam and Eve (replaced  by Tommy and Angela) but from the perspective of an alien world and a science fiction basis in that the reproduction of related individuals has led to a very genetically linked society with birth defects such as claw-feet and ‘bat-faces’. As these descendents of Tommy and Angela are initially small they must have lived out a lonely existence in a strange world, and although family reached over 500 around the time the novel starts, the effect of the initial isolation and challenges has a profound effect on the society that developed on Eden.

In Alison’s words though, it is ‘A world I’m desparate to return to’

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Title: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Author: Mark Haddon
Pages: 275
Buy: Book Depository; Waterstones
Source: The Mrs
Rating: 5 Stars

 

It is 9 minutes past six in the evening. I am writing a review of a murder mystery novel. I like murder mystery novels as they involve puzzles where you try to solve the mystery before the answer is revealed.

The novel I am reviewing is written by a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. I like reviews because you always know what someone thought of the book they are reviewing by the number of stars they have given the novel at the top of their review. It is a social convention that books are marked out of five, and that the more stars you give them, the more you liked the book.

(A convention is a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards)

I liked this book a lot. That is why I gave it five stars. What first drew me to this book was the title. The title is very long which is unusual for a novel. The title of this book is ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time’ and it says the author is Mark Haddon. But it isn’t. I have read the book and the author is actually Christopher Boone, this is one of the mysteries contained within it. In the book he states throughout that he is writing this book because he likes murder mystery novels as well, and he had a mystery he needed to solve. (He later had two mysteries to solve).

The initial mystery he had to solve was about a dog that had been killed with a garden fork which he found at 7 minutes past midnight. The dog belonged to his neighbour, this neighbour was a friend of his. The neigbour came out after a while and accused Christopher of killing the dog. As did the police officer, who touched Christopher. So Christopher hit him.

I think that day must have been a Black Day for Christopher due to what happened, if he had been on the bus I think he would have seen four yellow cars in a row. When I read this book however I saw 5 red cars in a row and so it was a Super Good Day and I enjoyed the book very much, I also had a strawberry milkshake on the way home which was good.

Christopher then sets out to solve the mystery of who killed the dog with the garden fork and proceeds to investigate this crime, against his father’s wishes. This is the main premise of the book at the start before it develops into a wider story arc. I’d like to tell you more about the book but my friend says that doing so would make my review full of spoilers (this would diminish or destroy the value of the book to those who have not read it), so I won’t do that.

Instead I will finish my review here. And then I will get the train home. And then I will read another book and write another review. And I know I can do this because Christopher Boone has taught me that I can do anything.

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison

The Garden of Burning Sand

Title: The Garden of Burning Sand
Author: Corban Addison
Pages: 320
Buy: Play; Waterstones
Source: First Reads
Rating: 4 Stars

***I recieved this book for free under the Goodreads First Reads giveaway scheme in exchange for an honest review.***

When I found I’d won my first book under the giveaway scheme after entering dozens I was excited but this was slightly dissipated when I read what book I had won. Then when it arrived a few weeks later and it was a hefty hard-cover I thought, how am I going to lug that in my briefcase to and from work on the train?

I put it off for three maybe four books but I shouldn’t have. I was wrong to be disappointed. It is a very good story that carefully, skilfully, and compassionately explores the issues affecting women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, and how the decisions we make as relatively rich westerners, who have access to healthcare, a relatively corruption free justice system (some police officers aside) and education, affect those who have none of these things and a lot less beside.

The story follows a rich young American female, the archetypical ‘sploilt brat with a trust fund’ trying to do good in the world and help those less fortunate than herself. Except that she doesn’t come across as spoilt, or a brat.

The exposition of the justice system in Zambia, the difficulty to achieve convictions, the superstitions that surround medical science as practiced in the west, and the horrors that AIDS and HIV has on societies in Africa are eye-opening, evocative, and effective.

The main character is developed well, others not so much, it is a first person book written in the third. I enjoyed it, it was interesting and informative. The story was good with a great deal of suspense, mystery, and twists that did mean the ending was not a foregone conclusion.

I heartily recommend it and will probably be purchasing have just received Mr Addison’s first novel, A Walk Across the Sun to see if it is just as good, or better.

The Cleansing by Sam Kates

The Cleansing by Sam Kates

Title: The Cleansing
Author: Sam Kates
Pages: 312
Buy: Book Depository
Source: First Reads
Rating: 4 Stars

*I received this book for free as part of the Goodreads First Reads giveaway in exchange for an honest review*

I really liked The Cleansing by Sam Kates. I don’t read much post-apocalyptic fiction and entered the giveaway because this book sounded interesting. A warning though, reviewing this book without giving anything away is difficult, so be warned.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything in a book called the Cleansing by revealing that humanity is (virtually) wiped out (it is in the blurb!). Although I’ve read little apocalyptic literature, the method of wiping out humanity is even something I’ve heard of before as a common method in this type of book. That being said, the way it is done, and why it is done is different and mysterious. You really want to know why this is happening and for what purpose.

This is a novel that is interesting, mysterious, and well written. There is a clear sense of the feelings of the survivors being brought to the fore, and the horror of the actual plague and the effects it has on society are explored well and in detail. During this phase of the book you are introduced to many families and individuals, including children albeit briefly.

The motivations, thoughts, and characters of the perpetrators are revealed slowly and the premise is something I found original. At times, despite the post apocalyptic setting, I felt I wasn’t reading a science fiction novel but a story about surviving in the face of adversity combined with a mystery.

I enjoyed it immensely, even if I do have to wonder about the empathy of an author who can write so easily about wiping out children. (The author explores that very thought and subject here.

In the book, not only is the horror that the survivors are living through skilfully and artfully explored and described but what happens to the world and society at large is littered throughout the story, cars everywhere, power failing, hospitals unable to cope without it being overbearing, it is just something that each character encounters on their arcs.

One of my favourite bits in the book (SPOILER AHEAD) is the President’s speech to the world.

The real shame for me was that the book was over so soon, at 300 pages I easily could have read more, two or three times the length which may have turned it into a brick book, but I like brick books (a la Peter F. Hamilton.)

So, Mr Kates, please write number two and I’d be happy to read it and find out what happens.

SPOILERS BELOW

Some questions I’d like answers to in the next book(s):

– How would the ‘People’ have wiped out humanity pre-20th century?
– Did they have any involvement in the Black Death or Spanish Flu?
– How did they hide their advanced technology for thousands of years?
– If they live underground on their home planet but rejuvenate through the Sun, how does that work?
– I recall Peter stating humanity was more intelligent, yet the ‘People’ could cure cancer and develop the Millennium Bug…

Also, if like me the first page didn’t make sense when you first read it, read it again once you’ve finished this book and it is actually a great big clue slammed in your face that you just missed first time around!

Overall a great book, looking forward to the second in the series.

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