Category Archives: Books – 4.5 stars

John Scalzi – Agent To The Stars

Aliens come to visit Earth, but because they resemble globs of gelatinous goo, they decide to hire a Hollywood agent to represent them, and figure out how best to introduce themselves to humanity. It’s a simple idea, cleverly executed.

This is actually John Scalzi’s first novel, but it wasn’t published until earlier this year, after the success of Old Man’s War. And like Old Man’s War, it’s a thoroughly engaging read. No, scratch that–it’s more than engaging. It’s actually the most straightforwardly enjoyable book I’ve read this year. It’s not the most intellectually demanding piece of science fiction, but it’s still good science fiction with lots of ideas–not just a collection of special effects and plot devices. And it’s funny. I can’t remember the last time I read an SF comedy, or even wanted to, but Agent To The Stars kept me up until 3 a.m. to finish it. Highly recommended.

(You can order Agent To The Stars from Amazon, or you could support a small press publisher by buying it directly from Subterranean Press.)

Allen Steele – Coyote Rising

Coyote Rising is the second volume in Allen Steele’s Coyote series. At the end of Coyote, the rebel colonists, after a hard few years on the ground, were joined by another wave of settlers intent on claiming the colony for themselves. The original colonists, who had fled Earth to seek their freedom on the alien world, abandoned their fledgeling township rather than let themselves be taken over. This book is another collection of stories, following both groups of settlers as they struggle with each other for dominance, while at the same time trying hard to survive on the frontier. And there isn’t a single dud among them. They are all well-written, strongly plotted, and full of fascinating characters. Extraordinary.

Christopher Brookmyre – Boiling A Frog

The best of the Jack Parlabane series so far. It could easily be seen as anti-Catholic, but I think it is mostly anti-hypocrisy: the Catholic character who rejects the hypocrisy he co-conspirators indulge in is redeemed. Also, the flawed characters are too obviouslt straw men to take entirely seriously as genuine targets. It’s satire, and it’s supposed to have bite.

(This quick review is part of my September 2005 “clearing the decks” exercise.)

Neal Asher – Brass Man

From the title and the blurb, I knew in advance that Brass Man was going to return to one of the most interesting characters of Neal Asher’s earlier book, Gridlinked. (Brass Man is the third in the Gridlinked/Ian Cormac series.) What I hadn’t expected was the holy shit moment in the first chapter when you realize just how directly it follows on from The Line of Polity, too. From that point on, Brass Man is just as much of a head-over-heels race for survival as the previous two in the series.

It is probably the most reflective of the three, too. You spend a lot of time in Mr Crane’s head, learning more about what brought him to this point, and how his internal struggle works. The stage is also shared by more, and more powerful AIs than before, which leads to some duels that are cerebral as well as planet-shaking. (Fans of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels will find a lot to like here.) And on top of all that, there is a wonderful parallel plot involving the quest of a knight on the far-out world of Cull to slay a dragon. If he can fight his way past the rest of Cull’s flora and fauna, that is…

Neal Asher – The Line Of Polity

The Line of Polity is the second book in the Gridlinked/Ian Cormac series. After having dispatched part of the extra-galactic entity known as Dragon, Cormac is back to his day job of infiltrating and eliminating terrorist cells. One such action, designed to put an end to the activities of rogue bio-scientist Skellor, doesn’t go quite as planned, and Cormac suddenly finds himself with a much more dangerous enemy on his hands.

Meanwhile, an Outlinker space station has been destroyed by nanotechnology last seen employed by Dragon; an undercover sting operation against an arms dealer goes sour, and a revolution is brewing on the theocratic world of Masada. Neal Asher brings back most of the key characters from Gridlinked to tie these threads together in spectacular style. With threats to the protagonists ranging from being subsumed by hostile nanotech to being eaten alive by the horrifying wildlife of Masada, this is classic all-out adventure from start to finish.

Richard Morgan – Market Forces

Market Forces is very different from Richard Morgan’s first two books. It’s set in the relatively near future (50 years or so), where vast corporations dominate the economic and social landscape, and executives duel each other for promotions in souped-up cars, on deserted and neglected motorways (cars and fuel being far too expensive for the vast majority of the population). Like Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, it’s a very aggressive, testosterone-heavy story, but with the more familiar setting Morgan is free to riff on some more political themes. It’s also much bleaker and cynical book than you would think. Given the number of shots at personal redemption Chris Faulkner, the main character, is given, you’d think he’d take at least one of them. But the book is much stronger for not choosing the happy ending and the easy way out. It makes a poweful emotional impact.

Dan Fesperman – The Small Boat Of Great Sorrows

Former Bosnian police detective Vlado Petric lives an unsatisfying but peaceful life in Berlin, where he and his family have sought asylum. When Calvin Pine, a prosecutor from the International War Crimes Tribunal, comes to ask for his help in catching a war criminal from the Second World War, Vlado is excited about returning to his own country, but afraid of what he will find there. His fears are justified. Not only does the sting operation go horribly wrong, but he and Pine get caught up in a fifty-year-old web of espionage and deception, involving Vlado’s dead father, and striking right to the heart of his own identity.

Aside from the intricately crafted plot, Dan Fesperman writes beautifully and movingly about the devastation and human cost of war. The characters he has created here are deep and engaging, and leave a lasting impact. The climax may have a little too much of the crime caper to it, but it does at least seal an otherwise rather dark story with an emotionally satisfying (and uplifting) cap. Highly recommended.

Joe Clark – Building Accessible Websites

If you’re building web sites, and you have any interest at all in making them accessible to people with vision, mobility, or other impairments, you need to read this book. Clark’s style is emphatic and sometimes haughty, but also caring and filled with pointed humour and dry sarcasm. The book covers the full spectrum of web accessibliliy techniques in exhaustive detail. Not only does Clark tell you what you should do, but also why you should do it–that’s what makes this such a valuable reference. Even a little accessibility can go a long way; this book tells you exactly what you need to know to implement it.

Bill Bryson – Down Under

I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not coming away with the impression that Australia is a cool and funky place to visit. Bryson adores the country and its people, and this love shines through even when he is explaining just how bizarre the place can get. He makes Australia sound like the best kind of adventure: relaxed, civilised and friendly when you choose to stay in and around the big cities, yet wild, unpopulated, outlandish and frankly dangerous when you stray from the beaten track. He finds delight in everything he encounters, and relates even the dullest encounter with relish and glee. Down Under is a pleasure from beginning to end.