Mike Finn
Review
4 Stars
'Network Effect - Murderbot Diaries #5' by Martha Wells
Network Effect - Martha Wells, Kevin R. Free

Finally, Murderbot gets the full-length novel that it and we deserve. Thank you, Martha Wells. I've loved the other episodes in the Murderbot Diaries but I was a little frustrated at having them drip-fed to me in what seemed to me to be a novel broken into novellas for no good reason.

 

I preordered the audiobook version of 'Network Effect' and dived into it as soon as it arrived in my audiobook queue. After four hours of immersion in Murderbot's world, this was my reaction:

This is a wonderful ride. MurderBot remains its compelling self but being freed from the novella format means that the plot structure is more complicated and the puzzle that needs to be solved has more twists in it.

 

Reading 'Network Effect' is like falling through a cascade of action sequences while working on a big picture to make sense of everything. There's never a dull moment and it took some self-control for me to do anything else today.'

I managed to pace myself and consumed the book over three days rather than one. The mystery continued to become more complex and the actions scenes continued to pile on and they were all fun and very well done but what I liked most about the book was the way in which Murderbot developed.

 

Murderbot isn't, doesn't want to be and can't become, human. Humans are messy and often reckless, shouldn't be trusted with weapons, are inappropriately optimistic for creatures that are both fragile and slow. Nevertheless, Murderbot is attached to its humans pretty much in the way you or I might be attached to our Labradors.

 

So, if Murderbot is going to continue to associate with humans and commit itself to protecting some of them, but isn't, doesn't want to be and can't become human, how does it develop to become more than a SecUnit that's hacked its governor unit so it can spend more time watching TV?

 

Martha Wells' answer to that is inspired.

 

 

Firstly she lets Murderbot itself slowly figure out that that is a question that deserves to be answered. Then she builds a plot that brings Murderbot back into contact with ART, the sarcastic, extremely bright, apparently working on covert missions transport ship that sheltered Murderbot earlier. Except this time Murderbot has to rescue both ART and ART's humans. Seeing the relationship between ART and its humans gives Murderbot a lot to think about. Creating a 2.0 copy of himself, for reasons I won't share here, and using his memories to persuade another SecUnit to hack its own governor unit, again help Murdrbot to reflect on its identity.

 

 

Then the Network Effect kicks in: we have multiple non-human intelligences connected to each other making Murderbot's situation less unique while making his value higher and pushing him to define who he is and what he wants to do next.

(show spoiler)

 

It's beautifully done. I had an exciting ride, a lot of action, good mystery and I got to watch Murderbot grow up.

 

I'll be back for more as soon as it's available.

 

I think the audiobook is quite well done, it even manages not to make Murderbot sound definitively male or female. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

https://soundcloud.com/audiolibrary-a/network-effect-by-martha-wells-audiobook-excerpt
Reading progress update: I've listened 282 out of 613 minutes. - the joy of words
Beach Read - Emily Henry, Julia Whalen

One of the joys of this book are the way the two writers trade pen sketches. Here's one where Gus, having asked what 'baby January' was like and having been told, 'She was a lot' spontaneously spins this:

 

'Let me guess. Loud. Precocious. Room full of books organised in a way that only you understood. Close with your family and a couple of tight-knit friends, all of who you probably still talk to regularly, but casual friends with anyone else with a pulse. A secret over-achiever who had to be the best at something, even if no one else knew. Oh and prone to juggling or tap dancing for attention in any crowd.' 

 

I can hear the joy and the danger in that kind of statement, where things come out of your mouth unedited, partly playful, partly true, partly catching you by surprise even as you hear yourself say them. It sparkles. Then January's response grounds it, without rebutting it, making it clear that words have edges and need to be thrown with care.

 

I also like how Emily Henry plays with the form while still delivering something satisfying. You know how there's likely to be a chapter in a romance book where the girl dreams of the boy or vis versa and suddenly understands the depth of their attraction? Well, this book has that chapter. The fun thing is that it's called 'The Dream' and it's one sentence long.

 

'I dreamed about Gus Everett and woke up needing a shower.'

 

That made me laugh.

Reading progress update: I've listened 234 out of 613 minutes. - like a romance but with real people
Beach Read - Emily Henry, Julia Whalen

I love how knowing and yet how believable this book is. The structure is self-referentially that of a romance novel, from Meet Cute to Happy Ever After with all the strep in between labelled as we go along.

 

Yet it's neither groan-worthily glub nor mechanically formulaic because: the characters KNOW the framework that they're in and any romance that occurs is created by mutual consent; the characters aren't plot-devices, they have histories and personalities and problems that determine how they behave within this romantic construct; the story is backlit by a playful examination of the process of writing a novel and the nature of the genres that are imposed on them. 

 

Together, these three things make for a novel that's like a romance but with real people who aren't blinded or glamoured by the magic of romance but instead are able to see themselves and each other more clearly.

Reading progress update: I've listened 137 out of 613 minutes.
Beach Read - Emily Henry, Julia Whalen

This is very well done. It's entertaining but it also takes a challenging look at publishing genres. Take this excerpt from a discussion between Gus, the male lit-fic writer and January the female romance writer. January says that her books aren't shelved as Romance but as Women's Fiction. Gus says:

 

'I don't understand why there'd need to be a full genre that's just books for women.' 

 

January replies:

 

'Yeh, well you're not the only one who doesn't understand it.' I said.  'I know how to tell a story, Gus and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you'd get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone but somehow, being a woman who writes about women, I've eliminated half the world's population from my potential readers and you know what? I feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed that people like you will assume my books couldn't possibly be worth your time while, meanswhile, you could shart on live TV and the New York Times would praise your bold display of humanity.'

 

 

Off Topic Post:Thoughts on what I'm looking for when I pick up a poetry book plus a poem by Brian Patten

 

Today, after a leisurely breakfast and some great coffee, I found myself ignoring the call of the birds in my garden who were busy celebrating yet another sunny day and reaching instead for a poetry book.

 

I was hungry for something but I didn't know what.

 

I searched through the pages of the 'The Nation's Favourite Twentieth Century Poems' in a way that felt less like browsing than stalking, as if my subconscious knew the prey I hunted.

 

These are poems I know well, some of them have been my companions for decades, yet I still turn the pages in expectation of finding something new in words I've already read. Poetry is like that. It stays the same but we don't.

 

Today, the poem my subconscious pounced on was Brian Patten's 'A Blade Of Grass'

You ask for a poem.
I offer you a blade of grass.
You say it is not good enough.
You ask for a poem.


I say this blade of grass will do.
It has dressed itself in frost,
It is more immediate
Than any image of my making.


You say it is not a poem,
It is a blade of grass and grass
Is not quite good enough.
I offer you a blade of grass.


You are indignant.
You say it is too easy to offer grass.
It is absurd.
Anyone can offer a blade of grass.


You ask for a poem.
And so I write you a tragedy about
How a blade of grass
Becomes more and more difficult to offer,


And about how as you grow older
A blade of grass
Becomes more difficult to accept.

'Why this one?' I asked my subconscious. It remained disdainfully silent, leaving me to figure that out for myself.

 

Sometimes I pick up poetry books to find solace or beauty or to make me laugh. Sometimes I'm looking for recognition: truths told in ways that say I'm not alone in how I see the world. Sometimes, like today, I open the book because I'm unsettled and I need to be given a space to think.

 

'A Blade If Grass' did that. On the first read-through, I found myself shaking my head, taking pleasure in my smug disapproval of the one who demands a poem but can't see the poetry in a blade of grass. 'Not me.' I thought. 'I'm smarter than that.'

 

Then I realised that I wasn't. I remembered how I'd sneered or snorted in disbelief when offered sharks in formaldehyde or unmade beds or white on white canvasses as 'art' and knew how closed my mind could be.

 

I thought about the offer of a blade of grass as a poem and how, over time, that offer became harder to make and harder to receive and wondered whether that was true and, if it was, was it a tragedy?

 

An image came to me, long unrecalled but it seems never forgotten, of dew-dressed spiders' webs on hedgerows, glinting in the early morning sun, silver snood stretched around the dark wet leaves.

 

I was nine or ten and doing my first ever job, delivering newspapers to rows and rows of Victorian semi-detached and detached houses: tall dark buildings that hid behind hedges and small patches of grass. Each gate had to be opened. Each path had to be trod. Each paper pushed through the often too small slot in the front door. It took time and focus. I misspent both. Instead of rushing from house to house, I stood caught in the spiders' webs, awed by the sight of them. I'd never been out so early, alone before. This was all new to me.

 

I think, at nine, I would not have blinked at asking for a poem and being offered a frost-covered blade of grass.

 

Now, I'm much more sophisticated. My tastes have been educated. Spiders' webs no longer have the power to capture me.

 

Which means I'm missing out. It means I'm less well-equipped to listen to poets who have retained the ability to see what I saw at nine years old.

 

Next time I open a poetry book, I'll try not to make that act into a challenge to poets to entertain and dazzle me but as a challenge to me to unlock my ability to see poetry for what it is.

Reading progress update: I've listened 21 out of 613 minutes.
Beach Read - Emily Henry, Julia Whalen

Well, the first chapter was slick, well-paced. mostly character-driven and only a little glib, so this may work.

 

Is January really a girl's name in America? I  mean I've seen it used in Seanan McGuire^s fantasy fiction, but does it happen in real life? Why would loving parents do that?

Review
5 Stars
'Planetfall' by Emma Newman - Highly Recommended
Planetfall (Planetfall #1) - Emma Newman

A future SF classic with ambitious storytelling, insightful characterisation and a unique premise.

 

I'd been told that 'Planetfall' by Emma Newman was a future SF classic so I wasn't surprised that it was good. I was surprised about what it was good at.

 

I'd expected that a book called 'Planetfall' would be rooted in tales of shiny spacecraft or huge asteroid-sized colony vessels and long discussions on hyperdrives, gravitational rings, weapons systems and strategic and tactical AI units, but it's not really like that.

 

There is a big asteroid-size colony ship, there's lots of plausible advanced tech and there is even an interstellar, interspecies mystery in the tradition of Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov. But, at its heart, this is the story of Ren, a cripplingly anxious woman, struggling with guilt for a past decision not yet fully revealed but which we know involves colluding in a lie at the foundation of the colony, a lie which, twenty years later, is in danger of being exposed.

 

The story, which is told from Ren's point of view, occurring mostly in the present but including some of her dreams and memories, tells of a trip to stars, led by The Pathfinder, to an unexplored planet on which they find a large organic structure that they refer to as 'God's City'.

 

The power of the book comes mostly from the intimate portrayal of Ren's journey, or perhaps her pilgrimage, motivated by love and faith, hindered by self-doubt, broken by a single event and the lies that followed it, crippled by guilt and struggling painfully towards hope.

 

'Planetfall' gives a deeply credible and personal insight into the effect of anxiety and guilt on mental health. It's really not comfortable being behind Ren's eyes. Almost all of her memories are painful: the mother she could never please, the father she left behind, the best friend that she followed to the stars and then lost, her own role in perpetuating a lie for twenty years. If you've ever been in the grip of anxiety or known someone who is, you'll recognise what is happening to Ren. It's heartbreaking to watch her anxiety and her compulsive behaviour, brought on by the lie she's created, lead her to self-imposed isolation and leave her despairing and on the edge of hating herself.

 

Capturing this in any novel is an achievement. Wrapping it in a novel of planetary colonisation that is more a pilgrimage to meet God, is extraordinary. Inserting a seed of betrayal and deception at the heart of everything and revealing it slowly, like a dead body you can smell but can't yet see, is inspired.

 

The ending of the book was very satisfying. It was surprising, filled with action and delivered an outcome that both dealt with the consequences of the lie at the heart of the colony's foundation and revealed the mystery that had called the colonists to the planet. It also continued Ren's journey in a way that provided some hope but which didn't protect her from her own history.

 

I listened to the audiobook version of 'Planetfall' which is narrated by the author. I’m never sure what to expect of authors narrating their own work. Some of them get it very wrong, for example, I can’t listen to Stephen King or John Irving read their stuff. On the other hand, Barbara Kingsolver and  John le Carré capture every nuance. I’m glad to say that I can add to Emma Newman to the list of authors who are good narrators. I’d be happy to listen to her read other people’s work too. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of her work.

https://soundcloud.com/orionbooks/planetfall-written-and-read-by-emma-newman
Reading progress update: I've listened 295 out of 463 minutes.
A Quiet Life In The Country - T E Kinsey, Elizabeth Knowelden

This is a lot of fun. The mystery part is so cosy, it barely causes a ripple of emotion but the relationship between the two main women and the joy they take not only in confounding people's expectations of how women should behave but use those expectations to their own advantage is wonderful. I'd read the book just for the banter between them.

If you're bored during lockdown, try this challenge.

 

 

My offerings are:

 

Fake That
The Sinks
New Older
Stereophobics
The Polite
Nuns N Roses
Megameth

 

 

 

Off Topic Post: Cartoon of the day - if only it was funny

Reading progress update: I've listened 122 out of 463 minutes - This is splendid.
A Quiet Life In The Country - T E Kinsey, Elizabeth Knowelden

It makes me smile almost constantly and occasionally laugh out loud. My wife has already read it, so it's one of those books where I keep going: 'I've just reached the part where Florence...' and we laugh about it because it's simply too good not to share.

 

Told from the point of view of Florence Armstrong, ladies maid to Lady Hardcastle it is full of nuanced wit, much of it around the rules governing the relationship between gentry and the rest of us. The relationship between Florence and Lady Armstrong is unconventional and based on several years of depending on each other in various, so far largely unspecified, hostile foreign environments.

#FridayReads 2020-05-22
 
 

I'm still in Lockdown and still in need of distraction so I've picked three books I'm hoping will carry me away for days at a time. The first is a newly-published genre-bending Rom-Com/Lit-Fic, 'Beach Read'. The second is the start of a much-loved period cosy mystery series, 'A Quiet Life In The Country'. The third is the second book in a thriller series about a man with extraordinary tracking skills, 'Pursuit'.

 
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is beach-read-by-emily-henry.jpg
 
 

I'm fascinated by the premise of 'Beach Read' by Emily Henry: two writers, strangers to one another, meet for the first time while on holiday. One writes RomCom, the other LitFic. Both are suffering from writer's block and make a pact to write each other's novels.

I'm hoping for something amusing and genre-bending. The reviews I've read suggest that I'll also find a substantial novel beneath the cute meet and the publishing in-jokes.

 
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My wife has already read 'A Quiet Life In The Country' by T E Kinsey and immediately moved on to 'In The Market For Murder', the second Lady Hardcastle book, so I know I'm in for a good time with this period-piece cosy mystery.

Set in 1908, the book centres around the unique relationship between the redoubtable Lady Hardcastle, an eccentric widow with a mysterious past and Florence Armstrong, her maid and confidant, who is an expert in martial arts.

The two are seeking a quiet life in the country which, thankfully they are cheated of once a dead body is discovered and the pair delve into rural rivalries and evil plots.

Sounds like a great book to read in the garden with a cold beer and a bowl of nibbles nearby.

 
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pursuit-ebook.jpg'Pursuit', by Indy Quillen, is the second of her Fox Walker thrillers.

 

I met Fox a couple of years ago in 'Tracker' which I thought was:

'An entertaining thriller that makes a fast, light, weekend read and creates some real page-turning tension.'

Fox is a Native American with extraordinary tracking skills. In 'Pursuit', he's tracking someone with skills that equal his own and whom, he begins to suspect, is not someone who deserves to be hunted.

I'm hoping to find myself eager to turn the pages and see how this works out.

 
 

 

Review
3.5 Stars
'Watchers' by Dean Koontz - if only we'd met in the Eighties.
Watchers - Dean Koontz, Edoardo Ballerini

If I had met 'Watchers' when we were both much younger, way back in the Eighties, I think we'd have had a good time. Now, more than three decades later, we're both showing our age.

 

I can see the appeal 'Watchers' had when it first hit shelves but I'm distracted by the literary equivalent of Eighties hairstyles and jackets with padded shoulders. I'm also more cranky and harder to impress than I was back then, so 'Watchers' now presses my buttons, both about voyeuristic violence and paper-thin characterisations of women. Yeah, I know, grumpy old git talking.

 

But then there was Einstein, the genetically enhanced Golden Retriever with language skills and a brain bigger than our ex-Delta Force (why are they always ex-Delta Force?) hero. Einstein was wonderful. Einstein justified the whole book. Anyone not liking Einstein needs a personality transplant.

 

I know that 'Watchers' is a favourite Koontz book for many of his readers and I can see why: Einstein, a scary monster, Einstein, outwitting the NSA, Einstein, triumphing over broken pasts and building a hopeful future, Einstein, defeating bad guys who really deserve it and finding good guys who will help in adversity because of ... well, Einstein.

 

I tried hard to give myself up to this book and to Einstein and to the long-time-coming confrontations and I mostly made it, except for the times when I got distracted or had my buttons pressed.

 

At the start of the book, I was sure I was going to have fun. I was one chapter in and I'd already had one murder, one almost-encounter with a menacing something and a meeting with a very bright dog. I was hooked.

 

Then I started to have doubts.

There was too much relish in the descriptions of how the contract killer does his job. I felt like I was in a Jack Reacher novel only without a good guy to save the day.

 

I hated the subplot of the TV Repair Man turned stalker. I'm not sure if it just hasn't aged well of if Koontz doesn't write women who seem real but I'm I didn't buy Nora's internal dialogue.

 

That's not to say the writing was bad. I hated both the assassin and the stalker. In my youth I'd have been glad to hate them and wait for the moment when they got theirs but my older, crankier self kept going, 'This level of detail seems exploitative, don't ya think? I mean, why else is it there?'

 

'Watchers' is definitely of its time. A lot of the plot has an 'only in the 80s' feel: the Russians are killing people rather than buying the President, the NSA are the good guys and no one has a phone. When our hero explains computers to Nora and tells her that they make everything more fluid and that they'll make it more difficult for governments to control individuals, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. None of this is a criticism of Koontz. I just wish I read this in the Eighties when I'd have seen the same world he did.

 

By modern standards, the pace is leisurely but I don't think it suffers because of it The pacing reminded me of dancing the flamenco, starting with slow, stylised posturing. leading into fast, hot-blooded action.

 

The emotional palette in 'Watchers' is limited but effective, like a graphic novel done in black and white with splashes of red à la 'Sin City'. People are either very bad or very good and blood flows often and copiously.

Women don't feature heavily, except for Nora who starts as a broken flower and evolves into someone comfortable with using an Uzzi at close range. I didn't find her convincing in either role. I could see why she like Einstein but I was less clear on why she fell so hard and fast for our ex-Delta Force hero (did I mention I didn't like him much? I was hoping he'd make The Ultimate Sacrifice).

 

I recommend the audiobook version of 'Watchers'. It's a recent recording with strong narration by Edoardo Ballerini. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

https://soundcloud.com/audiobooksalive/watchers-by-dean-koontz-audiobook-excerpt
Review
3 Stars
'Open and Shut - Andy Carpenter #1' by David Rosenfelt
Open and Shut - David Rosenfelt

A clever courtroom drama that pulses with a constant, often witty, self-deprecating humour.

 

In my head, 'Open And Shut' will always carry the subtitle 'The Case Of The Missing Golden Retriever'.

 

I bought the book thinking that it was the first in a series about Andy Carpenter, Defence Attorney and Tara, his Golden Retriever side-kick. for all I know, the rest of the series may live up to that description but the first book 'Open And Shut'gives a more prominent role to baseball than it does to Tara the Golden Retriever.

 

Nevertheless, I read 'Open And Shut' with sustained low-key pleasure in a single day. Although it is disappointingly low of canine contributions it's still a very entertaining book and I will be back for more in the series.

 

The main appeal of the book for me is the self-deprecating humour and witty one-liners that Andy Carpenter uses to tell the story of his life, his loves, his mistakes and his unconventional courtroom performances. The Andy Carpenter that we meet at the beginning of the story is going through some changes in his life: recently separated from his wife, recently orphaned by the death of his father and recently the recipient of substantial and unexpected inherited wealth. In the midst of all this, Andy is trying to win an unwinnable re-trial of a capital case that his father prosecuted successfully the first time around.

 

Andy plays the charming raconteur, casting the reader in the role of trusted confidante, and delivers a narrative that kept me smiling and occasionally made me laugh. Andy is not the kind of driven or angst-ridden lawyer that you find in John Grisham's novels. He has a pragmatic understanding of the law and his role in it and rejects sentimental or sanctimonious views of his work. He is a man who uses humour to distance himself from his emotions and from the stresses of a criminal trial but who never lies to himself about what is really going on.

 

I was also impressed by the plot of the book, which manages to entwine a my-client-didn't-do-it-so who-did? mystery, with uncovering secrets in his recently-deceased father's past. The courtroom ploys are clever and entertaining and the plot twists are well-managed and kept me guessing.

 

My enjoyment of the book was greatly enhanced by Grover Gardner's wonderful narration.ner

Off Topic Post: a cruel cosmic joke

 

This evening I took this picture of Bath in the late evening sunlight. 

 

I can't make the camera capture the full beauty of new light on old stone.

 

It's breath-taking.

 

Yet, looking at this on a day when the fact that we ONLY had 363 COVID-19 deaths yesterday is seen as good news, seems like a cruel cosmic joke.

 

The flags should be at half-mast.

 

We should be mourning the 55,000 ‘excess deaths’.

 

We should be grieving.

 

Instead, we bicker and snipe and play PR games.

 

It makes me ashamed.

 

Reading progress update: I've listened 821 out of 991 minutes. If Koontz kills the dog...
Watchers - Dean Koontz, Edoardo Ballerini

...I'll never forgive him.

 

currently reading

Progress: 412/613minutes
Progress: 11%
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