Reamde by Neal Stephenson – Book Review

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*Spoiler free*

Recently, I reviewed a MMORPG themed book from the World of Warcraft franchise, and gaming wise, there are plenty of books out there. Reamde, however, hits the gaming book genre from a completely different angle.

Unlike other gaming books, that typically show you the world solely through the eyes of the in-game characters; Neal Stephenson’s Reamde shows you the world through the eyes of the characters, the players and the developers themselves, inside the screen and out.

MMORPG games connect people the world over and often, when you’re playing, you have no idea who’s on the other side of the screen, playing alongside you. In Reamde, Stephenson experiments with how far away your in-game actions can be felt, and shows just how far that concept can go.

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So, how far away can your actions be felt in a MMO? If Reamde is anything to go by: very. Stephenson takes you around the globe, seeing the game at the hands of American fans, English authors, Chinese hackers and Russian crimelords, showing that a couple of bad decisions in online gaming can change your life forever.

Neal Stephenson has done his best to research everything in his book, from computing and gaming terminology to English and Chinese culture, to ensure he provides an authentic experience to his readers and, despite doing a great job at it; he may have been slightly overly-ambitious, and to a learned reader, some of the terms and facts he throws in either miss the mark, or appear unnecessary, as if to say “look at how much research I did” and nothing more. This hardly hinders it, though, and once you see past some of the minor content, the writing itself is very well constructed and entertaining throughout.

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The book splits into several sub-plots quite early on, so you’re constantly seeing a change in scenery, but you never feel lost, and the constant changes serve as a great mechanic for separating the giant and complex book into easy-to-follow chunks. Again, this has a downfall towards the end, as the different storylines begin to emerge, and it slows the ending down with repetition and deja vu. A lot of other reviews of the book complain about the size of the book and argue that it could have been halved, but if you invest in the characters and treat the book as a thriller; you find yourself encouraging the detail, and using it to place yourself into some of the tough, seemingly inescapable scenarios that the protagonists have to face.

As a gaming book it’s truly unique, and despite a couple of hurdles was an incredibly enjoyable read, with some great, engaging characters and some unlikely scenes and twists from start to finish.

A rare find, as far as gaming books go, and a must read for fans of the genre.

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett – My first visit to Discworld

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My first and only experience with the Discworld series, until today, was through the point and click adventures of Discworld, Discworld II and Discworld Noir on the PlayStation, and even though I enjoyed them, I never ventured to the paperbacks.

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Fortunately, due to a newfound dependency on audiobooks to ease the weekly commutes, I’ve been visiting all of the great literary sagas that I’ve never had the chance to check out or finish; from Iain M Banks’ Culture Saga, to Stephen King’s Watchtower Series, to some of the more popular runs; like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones run, I’ll be taking advantage of them all. Today was my first ever run in with Pratchett, and my first real attempt at fantasy. Until audiobooks, anything that wasn’t non-fiction or military, or gangster related, (or both, or all) was put to one side and deemed “not for me”.

If you haven’t tried audiobooks; the fact that it pushes you to try stuff you typically wouldn’t be willing to invest time in warrants it enough. They may cost more, but the convenience more than makes up for it. If you’re strapped for cash, Audible offer 1 free credit as a trial and currently have 3 additional credits on sale at £18. A credit grants you a full download of any of their audiobooks and the thriftier buyers will notice you can pick up things like the complete works of Shakespeare and the 63 hour long 30th edition of Atlas Shrugged for a single credit; providing you with literally days of listening time in a single hit, for a fraction of the price.

Anyway! onto The Colour of Magic…

This is the first of Pratchetts books in the enormous Discworld series; which describes the events of a world, on a disc, on the back of a pack of elephants, on a turtle…which is floating through space, to a location undetermined. Discworld has now spanned 3 decades and 40 novels, snatching up awards and bundles of critical acclaim along the way.

The version that I picked up was a spritely 7 hours long and narrated by Nigel Planer, who does a great job at getting hold of all of Pratchett’s complicated, imaginary vocabulary. A semi-downside of the Nigel Planer version is that it sounds a lot like it has been ported from an old cassette version. You can hear the subtle, magnetic squeal of digital synthesis in the background and the volume, and even general mastering of the audio track varies from chapter to chapter; which can be obnoxiously jarring when you’re caught up in the story. It does, however give it the retro feel of an 80’s novel though, which is probably as close to the feeling of picking up a tattered, much-read, beloved book as you can get with an audio track…so maybe it’s something to be embraced.

As with any longstanding series, the first book comes across as a little bit wet behind the ears, which will surely buff out as the series carries on. Despite it being an introductory novel, of sorts, it actually does a great job of introducing you to the concept of Discworld and the physics, lore and jargon that surrounds it. Rather than explaining everything that’s unique to the realm of Discworld, Pratchett refreshingly describes things as though you’re one of its inhabitants and that you should already get the gist. This may sound daunting, but it actually serves the fantasy really well and makes all of the new feel much less of a struggle.

Rincewind, the main protagonist, is painted well as the last person that should be playing the hero, but someone who is unwillingly thrust into situations beyond his ken; and you’re encouraged to feast upon his misfortune throughout, with some hilarious perforations from his unwanted, scythe-wielding onlooker.

It’s a brilliant combination of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and something that clearly inspired the likes of Riyria Chronicles and the Wizard’s Choice digital gamebooks that I recently reviewed. I feel slightly guilty that I’m so late to the party…hopefully I’ll be caught up soon…39 to go!

My 5 picks from the Audible sale

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Audible is one of those expensive, unnecessary things that I don’t need, but like having. It’s not a bad product, by any means, but on average, you’re paying around £1 per hour for digital content. When most audiobooks are around 20 hours long, you quickly realize that you can buy the physical disks online for the same price or less. It is, however, immediate, remote and convenient, granting you all of your audio library in one place, with a few additional features thrown in too.

I troop on with it, like a gym membership, it encourages me to “read” because I’m committed to a subscription, and it gives me the push I need to read books that I’ve always wanted to, but never gotten around to.

Cheap books on audible are rare, so while there’s a sale on, it’s worth grabbing what you can.

Up until March 9th, the books on sale are £5.99; putting most of them at half price or better.

Here’s five books to consider:

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A Battle Won by Sean Thomas Russell (Historical Fiction)

If you’ve ever wanted to get into a Naval War series, this is probably one of the best starting points. If you’ve ever wanted to try out the likes of the Hornblower of the Aubrey/Maturin series, but don’t want to delve into a 20-book-run of complex, nautical grey matter, Russell’s Hayden run currently stands at 3 books, with A Battle Won being the second. The story takes place around the time of the French Revolution, and just before the Napoleonic Wars famous for it’s rise in history-making, nautical battles between the likes of Napoleon, Nelson and Collingwood, and throwing in the battles of the fictitious Charles Hayden did history no harm.

It’s strange that the first book, Under Enemy Colours, hasn’t been included in the sale, possibly due to the sequel holding a higher rating, but either way, it’s a good jumping-on point, as the plot is quite straightforward, as far as historical fiction can go. If you already read Naval War stories, it might seem a little toned down and simple, but at £5.99 and 15 hours long, it’s worth a shot.

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The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson (Fantasy/Norse Fiction)

A story the paints a beautiful picture of Norse Mythology, telling the story of based around the actions of Thor, but from the perspective of some of Yggdrasil’s smaller, but equally pivotal inhabitants.

The Broken Sword is narrated by renowned narrator, Bronson Pinchot, who does a great job at bringing the complex, mythological realms to life.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Popular Psychology/Personal Development)

Not a personal favorite, but I was impressed to see it in the sale, and would recommend picking it up while it’s so cheap. As far as pop-psychology and behavioral economics go, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but acts as a nice guide and reminder of how we choose to see the world around ourselves, and will leave you analyzing the hum-drum of everyday transactions.

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Saints of New York by R.J. Ellory (Detective, Thriller)

Mafia-era, New York Police Detective investigating a run of homicides. It’s not for everyone and it’s full of swearing, violence and unredeeming characters. If you’re a fan of gangster movies, it truly feels like a 16 hour version of Ray Liotta’s narrative in Goodfellas. If you think that kind of stuff is childish and obnoxious, steer clear, but if, like me, you love a good mob story; this one pulls no punches.

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Firefight by Chris Ryan (Military Fiction)

Chris Ryan is the slightly lesser-known military author that emerged from the events of “Bravo Two Zero”. Known as “The One That Got Away”, Chris Ryan embarked on what is now considered the longest escape in British Militay history, covering 190 miles from Baghdad to Syria after an SAS operation, lead by famed military writer, Andy McNab, was compromised.

Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Chris Ryan’s work, both his non-fiction accounts and his fiction, as it is undoubtedly steeped in first-hand experience and subtle truths.

Firefight is a fictional story based around the war in Afghanistan, and as troops begin to pull out of Helmland in the real world; it’s a good time to reflect on one of the biggest military operations in history, through the eyes of a soldier.

Wizard’s Choice and the return of old-old-school gaming

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My first ever Dungeons and Dragons-style experience was through Ian Livingston’s 1985 book, Freeway Fighter.

Freeway Fighter was a “game book”, a genre that hit significant popularity in the mid 1970’s to 1980’s; around the same time that Dungeons and Dragons, and the fantasy computer game, Zork rose to fame.

The CYOA, or Choose Your Own Adventure book scene was huge, and featured mechanics such as Hit Points, Mana, Pen and Paper, Gold and even D20 Dice variables like a true tabletop role-player, but all contained within the confines of a paperback. Even as a kid, growing up in the 90’s, I felt their allure and quickly plowed through as many as I could find, but always returning to Freeway Fighter. Freeway Fighter was not only my first game book, but also my first minor act of crime; as I returned to it so many times in my school library, in an attempt to better my score, that I ultimately ended up graduating with it still in my possession; accidentally stealing the tattered, abandoned book outright!

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All of my memories of Mad Max-style endeavors in Freeway Fighter flooded back to me recently, upon the discovery of Wizard’s Choice; a mobile game for Windows phones and Android by Delight Games.

Although it’s a mobile game, it plays out just like a classic game book; with simple text, pictures and a list of role-playing options at each turn. In Wizard’s Choice you take the role of a semi-savvy wizard with his slow, but battle-ready, warrior friend, on the hunt for a lost damsel.

The “book” itself is written really well, albeit amateur. Despite the odd slip, it rolls along quite nicely, and has a reassuring air of humor behind it, allowing the writer to get gritty and gory from time to time without getting too dark. The decisions in it are well thought out, and reward the keenest of readers, by ensuring that the consequences relate to the text (for example, you can lose morale by taking the advice of a stranger over a trusted friend, or fail to complete a command, as a result of not heeding subtle advice written between the lines).

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The story changes scenery at a good pace, keeping you engaged and on your toes, and, although intuitive, will still manage to surprise you from time to time, like a good game book should, particularly a fantasy one. The only downfall, for me, was the lack of a dice mechanic. I think they’ve really missed a trick there, and it’d add a more random element to the overall game, not to mention pay homage to its predecessors.

If you die; you get the option to restart from the last checkpoint (page of inconsequential text), or from the beginning altogether and at the end of the chapter you’ll be rewarded with a score, rank and summary, encouraging you to go back and attempt a perfect run.

Delight Games have a library full of CYOA-style games and offer a premium membership, which grants you access to all of their titles, plus updates. I’ll be investing in it shortly…after another read of Freeway Fighter, for old time’s sake.

Book Club – Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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David Foster Wallace became one of my new favorite writers in 2013, after a Youtube video featuring his 2005 “This is Water” commencement speech to Kenyon College’s Liberal Arts graduates, performed a lap around the social media circuits.

Since then, I’ve gone on to pick up whatever I can of his, from Infinite Jest, to his commissioned magazine editorials, and was fortunate to find “Consider the Lobster”, narrated by David Foster Wallace himself, on Audible.

David Foster Wallace died in 2008, and I’m selfishly saddened by the fact that such a great writer, who lived in my time, wrote such brilliant work, won awards and, sadly, committed a depression-induced suicide before I’d so much as heard of him. Knowing that such greatness can exist around around you, and be gone without creating so much as a ripple in your own world is uniquely saddening.

So, to find something I hadn’t read that was both written by David Foster Wallace and recited by him, gave me a chance at redemption, and a feeling of discovery, that I selfishly felt I had been robbed of, back in 2013.

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Consider the Lobster is a collection of essays, journals and commissions that grants a bizarre insight into David Foster Wallace’s life as a journalist, and an eye opening look at the world from his perspective.

The book is so refreshing, as Wallace focuses on the banal, irritating and mundane, and finds unexpected pockets of sadness, humor and reality deep within so many of life’s kinks.

From his comparisons between democratic process and lobster galas, to finding addictive forms or art and emotion within hardcore pornography, Wallace’s perspective serves to be evocative and humbling. Most importantly, it gives you a new, critical path into your own trains of thought, and makes you realize that everything around you can be considerably deeper than it first appears, provided you nurture your own opinions.

At times, you will even feel guilty for pre-judging, glossing over, and generalizing things that you typically wouldn’t give a second thought to. We all think that we’re above the crass and belligerent, but by simply analyzing every essence around him, Wallace teaches you, in Consider the Lobster, that we’re all guilty of it, and that there is so much out there that deserves our attention, but sadly; never demands it.

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – Limited Edition Audiobook Box Set

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I’m a big fan of the Green brothers and everything they do on youtube and, as such, picked up The Fault in Our Stars as a paperback quite early on, but really struggled to read it. I also tried with Looking for Alaska, but alas, it too failed to gel with me.

I’d describe his writing as American teen literature that hinges towards a female audience. That doesn’t make it bad in anyway; nor does me not liking it, but as a big, bearded 26 year-old from the cold, industrial North, I found it hard to relate  with all the sweepy-dreamyness, romance, wonder and hope. It’s just not in me.

When my girlfriend was gifted an audiobook version, however, I thought I’d give it a go. I find it much easier to commit into a book if somebody else is reading it…call me lazy.

The Limited Edition version of the audiobook comes with narrations from John Green himself, rather than the Kate Rudd narration, which can be found elsewhere. I’ve not listened to the Kate Rudd version, but there’s something special about listening to an author read their own book; I found the same with Stephen Fry. Whenever pushed between a choice of narrators, I’ll always go for the author’s voice over another. If anything, they read it the way they intended you to read it, and have a much smoother ebb and flow across the pages.

The book makes continuous references to another book, calling it “not a cancer book”, and if I had to describe this book in one phrase, it rather fittingly suits it down to the ground. Although cancer is very much part of the book, it is written well enough that the story is never about cancer, and cancer isn’t going to be the star of the show. The star of the show always remains the sixteen year-old, half-lunged hero, Hazel Grace Lancaster. Like many of my favorite books, the roster is short, allowing each character plenty of space for development, and plenty of opportunities to plant their roots into your mind.

Although the style wasn’t for me, and built a barrier between me and the story, it wasn’t long before I was in the gooey center of the story, firmly planted and once again feeling like a teenager with the world at my service.

John clearly recalls his own youth well and fondly, as he writes from a teen’s perspective so well, that you always feel in the midst of it; wheeled along like Hazel’s theraputics.

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It touches on some serious matter, poses some great questions and forces you to look at some of our shortcomings as a species and as a culture. Not many books manage this, and to do so amidst a book that’s ultimately based around a room of children who are waiting to die hammers the point across quite solidly, but without being damning, and moreso teaches you through the actions of these children, that being human is always the best response, no matter the outcome.

Verdict

Although it was a little young for me and, thusly, the topics sometimes felt a little basic and unchallenging, the overall journey was fantastic, compelling and rewarding. I’m a huge fan of Douglas Coupland, and would rank this book similar, but gentler, on subject matter. If you’re looking for an easily accessible book, that lightly scratches the surface of all the big questions, without enveloping you, I’d highly recommend it. 9/10

The Box

One of the most impressive things bout the Limited Edition is the amount of thought that’s gone into it. The complete audiobook, with an additional DVD, a wristband, some postcards of featured locations from the book and a concert ticket replica. Its all really nicely thought out and detailed. I’d hazard to guess that John Green, thought up and picked all of this stuff out himself, as it all fits together so well.

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I took a picture of the contents, but http://fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com/ had a shinier one, hope they don’t mind me using it!

Book review – Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks Consider Phlebas Review
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I’m a huge Iain Banks fan; from the moment I read the immortal opening words, “It was the day my Grandmother exploded…” in The Crow Road, I was hooked, and continued through The Business and The Wasp Factory, all the way up to his swansong, The Quarry.

In all my time as a devout Iain Banks fan, not once did I explore the realms of Iain M. Banks; his sci-fi alter-ego. I always thought sci-fi books weren’t for me; I liked science and fiction, but also liked a vertical line between the two.

As mentioned in the blurb of this section, however, I am travelling 1000 miles a week…at night…by car, and, if there’s one thing I need to survive such an ordeal, it’s continuous engagement. Iain M. Banks’ sci-fi books are notoriously big, so when picking an audiobook for a 6 hour journey, the 16 hour sci-fi, Banks, premier, Consider Phelbas made prefect sense.

This was Banks’ first entrant in the “Culture” saga, in which 2 races wage war across the universe, treating anyone who is not either Culture or Idiran as merely pawns, and expressions of dominance. In StarCraft II terms; they felt a lot like a Protoss and Zerg-like race.

The book was first published in 1987, and was infact written a long time before that, with Banks going back and revising it after he’d gotten his feet wet. Many have criticized the book, due to it being an aged science fiction, for not maturing well, and suggest that a lot of his then-future-talk has now been rendered obsolete, taking away from the overall book. Personally, I don’t see this. The book has some very broad sci-fi views, such as what constitutes a “human” and what constitutes a conscious being, and all-in-all it requires some open mindedness, so it’s difficult to pick up on anything overtly old-fashioned in the book.

Without going into too much detail about the plot; it’s a long and tiring journey, and you really feel like you’ve travelled, yet, at the same time, you don’t feel like you leave knowing everything. Bank’s universe is beautifully and meticulously described, but in a way that reminds you that your mortal brain couldn’t possibly comprehend fully what is happening, leaving you in constant awe. The descriptions can get monotonous, however, and sometimes, when there’s a big desert somewhere, all you want to know is that it’s a desert…and that it’s big. It also lacks one of my favorite Banks elements; his pitch-black humor.

Banks can make the darkest things even darker, and then make you laugh in the face of them. It seems, that this side of Banks is reserved for the non-M, straight-talking fiction side of him, and sadly it doesn’t make it’s way into this book. All-in-all it’s a great read though, and has definitely got me looking out for the rest of the Culture series.

The audio book is well presented, well directed and well produced. The narrator, Peter Kenny, who is a regular reader of Banks’ audiobooks, lovingly and emotively takes you on the unabridged journey, with distinct changes in voice when reading voices, but without butchering them; a pitfall I find in many audiobooks. I feel his voice is a little soft for the theme of this book, but he carries the words so well, it’s only a minor gripe, in an otherwise flawless presentation.

Verdict

Quite heavy for a first sci-fi, but at the same time, the Culture saga feels like a great introductory plot to get involved with, and I will certainly be carrying on the series. It dragged in places, and despite it being re-written, still feels a little green around the edges; show Banks in a less-experienced time. It carries as much heart around as his standard fiction work though, and in a completely different way. He truly is two writers rolled into one and has changed my perception on sci-fi. 8/10