Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Rosie Project (and what makes a perfect book)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Genre: Contemporary/comic
No. of pages: 300

Don Tillman in a thirty nine year old Genetics professor at an Australian university, and he has decided that he would like to get married. He has come to this conclusion  because studies show that married people live happier, more productive and fulfilled lives. Plus it is so much more efficient and economical, sharing the cost of living, cooking meals for two rather than one... Unfortunately he's never really had a relationship that has lasted beyond the first date, people - particularly women - do find him a bit weird, as his social skills are not very good. Also, he is very particular about the sort of woman he would be able to live with - they shouldn't drink (much), should be intelligent, must not smoke, be able to dance... One day he has the perfect idea of how to solve it - a very detailed questionnaire, so he can screen out all of the unsuitable candidates. So begins The Wife Project. He's after the perfect wife and many are unsuitable, none more so than Rosie...

Before I get on to what I thought of The Rosie Project, in the spirit of the story I would try out The Book Project and see how suitable this book is. So here's my list of what I'd need to make the perfect book.

  1. Beautiful writing, the kind of prose that really sucks you in, makes you feel like you are there, drinking in every delightful word.
  2. A good story, well constructed and not predictable.
  3. Characters that you really get to know and care about what happens to them
  4. A sense of awe and wonder
  5. Lots of really fascinating detail, where you learn a lot.
  6. A real page turner.
  7. A happy ending
  8. A world in which you can escape into and forget your real life worries
  9. The right length, not too long that it takes forever to read, but not so short that it is over too soon.
  10. An overall great feeling at the end that you've just read a fantastic book that you want to tell everyone about.
So how did this book fare? Well like Rosie, this book fails many of the criteria: the writing isn't beautiful (it isn't that kind of book, it is short and snappy rather than overly verbose), the book is nothing if not predictable and there's no sense of awe or wonder. You never really escape into it, like you would with some books, and it is not exactly a page turner though it is a quick read. So what does it have in its favour? Well I really liked the character of Don. He is rather odd by most standards but that just makes him quite endearing and I really found myself hoping and wishing everything would turn out for him. It is funny in many places, sometimes laugh out loud funny, and it has *very slight spoiler* a happy ending. And as for number 10, it did leave me with a great feeling of having read a great book (though now, a few days later this has faded a fair bit, quicker than may be the case with heavier fare).

So it fails many of the above tests, but then that's the point really isn't it? That's why you don't judge a book (or a woman) on the results of a questionnaire!

I feel I should mention one criticism of the book, which is that it isn't actually very reflective of people with Asperger's Syndrome and in fact is potentially quite insulting to them. I don't know about this, but although Asperger's is mentioned, Don doesn't think of himself as having this, and there is at most the inference that he has, it is never explicitly stated. I don't think the author intended this to be a serious book about people with Asperger's or similar mental conditions. It is meant to be a light hearted, heart warming and funny book, and in this the author has definitely been successful. I'd give this a 9/10, just. I nearly marked it down for being a bit too light and fluffy, but in the end I didn't have the heart to.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Guards! Guards! (Arrest that dragon!)

Book:  'Guards! Guards' by Terry Prachett
Series: Discworld series (book 8, but standalone)
Genre: Comic Fantasy

I'm a bit of a sucker for a beautiful book. I'm talking here about a really beautiful looking book (though obviously beautiful writing is good too). This is the way the publishing industry is going too, publishing really lovely hardback editions of books to try and entice readers to buying actual physical books for way over the odds. It worked for me. This is one of those gorgeous, textured hardcover books that feels great to hold. It's stylistic cover is all oranges, yellows and silver, with a large fire breathing dragon gliding over the cityscape of Ankh Morpork.

They do say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover though, so lets go and see what's inside. 'Guards! Guards!' by Terry Pratchett is a Discworld* novel, the eighth in the series. For those that don't know, the Discworld novels - of which there are about forty to date - is a series of comic fantasy novels by Terry Pratchett, set in the fictional Discworld. Novels can, by and large, be read in any order and in fact many Pratchett fans would argue that the first couple of books aren't the best starting point. This book is the first book to feature the City Watch^ - Captain Vimes, Carrot, Nobby and Colon amonst others and is as good a starting point as any (Mort is another really good one to start with).

I'm not a diehard Pratchett fan by any means, I've read a few books before, but never any of the City Watch books, though friends have suggested these are some of their favourite Pratchatt books. So I thought I'd give this one a go. The premise of the book is that the City Watch is at an all-time low, the Captain is a hopeless drunk and his two sub-ordinates are just...hopeless. Then Carrot, an eager six foot plus dwarf joins the watch, the first volunteer in... well, a long time. Soon after his arrival a dragon arrives in mysterious circumstances and the Watch actually have a job to do for once.

I really enjoyed this book. Pratchett is a very funny writer. He makes a lot out of metaphors and word-play - for instance when one Vimes tells one of the Watch to 'throw the book' at the bad guy, that's what he does, literally. He makes good use of footnotes# for particularly amusing additions to the main story, and so it is always worth reading those. Sometimes 'comic' authors try to be funny but just fall short, but not this author, he actually is very funny. What's more though, there is actually a good story - it is a somewhat stereotypical fantasy story - dragon threatens city - hero arrives to challenge it - but that is entirely the point here! This completely turns the story on its head and makes much fun of the stereotypes.

So that's good humour, good story and to add to that, there's good characters which you really care about too. They're funny and a bit silly, but sincere too, you believe in them. The main character Captain Vimes, starts out a drunkard who barely does anything, he doesn't want to be that way, but doesn't know how else to be. The arrival of danger in the city gives him the impetous to actually change, and be more the person he always wanted to be. Then there's Carrot, an eager young recruit who believes in (and knows off by heart) the law, when no one else does. He also takes everything literally, which is rather funny a lot of the time.

Pulling off both being funny and telling a good story is quite a challenge, but Pratchett really manages it well in this novel. I'm going to give this a solid 8/10.

If you enjoy this book, then you'll probably enjoy the rest of the Discworld novels. If you particularly like the characters in this book, then you'll want to check out the other two books in the City Watch trilogy - 'Men at Arms' and 'Feet of Clay'.

*These are 'must read' books for  members of the Flat Earth Society, as the Discworld is literally that, a flat disc. Resting on top of four elephants. Who are atop a giant turtle. Which is flying through space. All fairly normal really.
^Watch is probably an apt name, as it is not like they actually do anything.
# Like this. Not that I'm copying or anything. Erm.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On This Day in History... A Time Machine was born!

On this day in history, a time machine was born. Seriously. On 21 January 1981, the first De-Lorean car rolled off the production line in Dubmurry, a suburb of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Making the De-Lorean a British car... sort of. Only about 9,000 were ever made before the company halted production in 1983, and so it would have remained an obscure car only known to die hard motor fanatics, were it not for its starring role in one of my favourite films, Back to the Future. So for Back to the Future fans, this is a day worth celebrating.
BTTF DeLorean Time Machine" by Terabass 
The car retailed for about $25,000 (about $60k in today's money) but was so popular that there was a waiting list, and many people were willing to pay over the odds for the car. The company went into liquidation during a huge slump in the US car market, and after the creator, John DeLorean, was arrested on drug trafficking charges. He was later found to be not guilty but by that point it was too late for the DeLorean.

The car had several production runs, but with only very minor differences, and all the production cars were left hand drives as they were made for the American market, although 16 were subsequently modified to be right hand drive. Then there was the pilot test cars, all thought destroyed, until one turned up in a barn in Northern Ireland in 2003. How someone had one of these all this time and no-one noticed I've no idea...

Interestingly there are also three gold DeLoreans, covered in 24 carat gold plating. These were made for American Express, who were planning to sell 100 gold DeLorean's as part of a sales promotion. Only two were made initially however, and one was made later from spare parts which had been ordered by American Express in case of any faults or damage to the cars. A gold DeLorean just isn't the same though, it wasn't in Back to the Future after all, was it?

That's enough about the DeLorean, but I'll be coming back to Back to the Future later in the year as 2015 is a very important year. It is 30 years since the first film came out, but much more importantly, it was the year Marty McFly travelled to in Back to the Future 2. You know, the one with the hoverboards and flying cars...

Monday, 19 January 2015

Britain's Next Bestseller?

This weekend I came across a great new (to me at least, think it's been around a few months) website, It's a sort of Kickstarter for books, authors submit their novel and it gets put on the site. People can then pre-order the book, and if the book meets the minimum number of pre-orders the author gets a deal and the book gets published.

I was immediately attracted to the editor's pick, '26 Miles to the Moon' by Andrew Males. It's got a bit of a bonkers theme, run a marathon and the winner gets to go to the moon but I kind of like that. This isn't a science fiction book at all, it is described as General Fiction/Humour, but I like the nod to space tourism. This could actually happen in the next decade, there's certainly enough space obsessed billionaires to make it happen (well I can think of at least one, which is surely enough...).

I liked the concept, but that on its own wasn't enough to make me part with £9.99. Fortunately there's a sizable initial sample, about three chapters you can download and read (the chapters are quite short). It's really quite a funny book and endearing too. I can honestly say that if I could have, I'd have kept reading the book. I'll have to wait for a bit for that though...

For more information about this book click here to read all about it. You can also download the free some sample from here, I suggest you do because it's great fun! If you want to you can pre-order it for £9.99 (plus £2.49 postage). It's already met its minimum 250 pre-orders so the book is going to be published, but you've got until Friday to get in on the act (after that you'll have to wait until it's actually published around April/May time). Pre-ordering the book gets you it 2 weeks before it gets published, and you get your name published in the book as a thank you for helping getting it to print. You never know, this really could be Britain's next bestseller and you could help make it happen.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Crime, Overstuffed Armchairs & a Time Before the Internet

I've just finished reading Sunset Express by Robert Crais, a private detective crime novel featuring California PI Elvis Cole and his sidekick, Joe Pike. It's the six in the Elvis Cole series, and while I've been reading them in order it has been a while since I read the last one.

I'll come on to why I like the series and what I thought in a minute, but first a brief synopsis.

A woman has been murdered, and the evidence all points to the husband, a super rich businessman. However there are suggestions that the female detective who found the crucial piece of evidence and made the arrest will do anything to get ahead - some even believe she has falsified evidence before and would do so again to get her career back on track. Elvis Cole is hired by the defendant's legal team - headed by celeb hotshot lawyer Jonathan Green - to look into the Detective's background, and follow up on some other leads.

This is a good, solid detective novel. There are some good twists and turns, but overall you know roughly what sort of book you are going to get before you set out. They've all been good so far, and I liked this one at least as much as the others. One quirk I noticed about the book though, is that whatever house Elvis Cole goes into, whether victim, suspect or witness, there always seems to be an overstuffed armchair. And this got me thinking. Now that it's on my mind, I'm sure there's always overstuffed armchairs in crime novels, and don't read about them elsewhere. Come to think of it, who overstuff's their armchairs? I'm not sure if I've seen one before in real life!

Anyway, moving on from that, what is it I like about the Elvis Cole novels? One of the most noticeable things, and something I've noticed in other crime novels (such as Sue Grafton) is that the books take place in the modern day, but before mobile phones or the internet. It is a time when, if you need to find something out you do some good old fashioned detective work you don't just fire up Google. It's also a time when, if you are stuck somewhere, you can't just whip out your iPhone... I like this about it, and think detective crime novels like these would be much less enjoyable if they featured lots of modern technology (note - just realised it was written in the late 1990s when the internet was in its infancy and the populous were only just starting to get obsessed with their mobile phones. It will be interesting to see if later books keep the traditional pre-internet perspective).

I also like the Elvis Cole books because they are funny. Elvis is a real wisecracking smart-ass, and really likable about it too. Over the course of the books you really feel like you are getting to know him. The reader is invited into his home, find out what he's cooking, what he's drinking and anything else that's going on. There's a bit of a sub-plot involving his girlfriend that spans several books, and he's not a dysfunctional loner unlike many detectives you meet in crime fiction. All of this makes the books quite a refreshing read.

If you are thinking of picking up an Elvis Cole novel, you might want to start at the beginning with 'The Monkey's Raincoat' but you can I believe read them in any order, certainly in the case of the first 7 books anyway. The 8th book, LA Requiem, is deeper and darker, and mark something of a turning point in the books. Or so I've heard anyway, I'm not there yet though.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

2015 - An exciting year in space?

I've recently started to get more interested in all things to do with space exploration and astronomical events, I think possibly because there's more going on now than there ever really has in my lifetime before. 2014 was an exciting year with all the drama of the Rosetta spacecraft and the Philae lander bouncing on a comet in November. But what can we look forward to in 2015, and when?

Jan-March 2015 - Nasa's Dawn spacecraft is currently exploring the asteroid belt. It spent 14 months orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta, before firing its ion thrusters in late 2012 to depart for the dwarf planet Ceres. It's due to arrive at Ceres on 6th March, but for a good few weeks there will be some great photo ops as it approaches. We know very little about Ceres, so this should be interesting. On a technical point, it is the first spacecraft to successfully orbit two different planetary bodies - usually they don't have the power to leave a body's orbit when they've arrived.

20th March 2015 - There is a total solar eclipse scheduled for 20th March. Although this happens every couple of years, it's often not actually on land. This time, there will be a total eclipse in the Faroe Islands and parts of Svalbard. The good news if you live in the UK is you'll get at least an 80% eclipse. Where I live in the north of England, it should be around 90%, which is the best we've had for a decade and a half (the last time was in 1999 - there was a total eclipse in Cornwall, but it was cloudy alas. British weather!). There's an annual three day astronomy event on TV - Stargazing Live - which will be taking place around this date.

July 2015 - The NASA New Horizons spacecraft will reach the (dwarf) planet Pluto. It has been travelling for nine years, and is now on final approach to Pluto, 3.6 billion miles away. It is so far away that it takes signals 4 hours to reach Earth. The really exciting thing about this is that it is the only one of the planets (if we still call it a planet) that has not been explored. The best images we had previously were very blurry images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. As one commentator said, it is like we are back in the 1960s and 70s when all of the other planets were visited for the first time. I wasn't born then, so this will be a first for me.

Late 2015 - British astronaut Tim Peake will journey to the International Space Station for six months, the first British astronaut to do so. Hopefully this will have a lot of media coverage here in the UK, and encourage more investment in space technology.

There's a few other things going on throughout the year which I'll be taking an interest in:

SpaceX is always an exciting company to watch. At the moment they're working on making the first stage of their rockets reusable. This doesn't sound exciting on the face of it, but if they succeed they'll make space missions of all sorts a lot cheaper. Which will pave the way for lots of exciting and useful things. Their first test this year didn't go so well, as the rocket was supposed to make a "soft landing" on a barge in the sea, but kind of crashed into it. Still, it hit the target which I believe is a very hopefully sign!

Rosetta/Philae mission - remember those? The plucky Philae craft managed to land on the comet, but ended up in the shade and its batteries soon died. The scientists on the mission are optimistic that as the comet flies closer to the sun, the Philae craft will wake up as it gets more sunlight on its solar panels. Even if it doesn't, the Rosetta mothership will be collecting lots of interesting data including how the comet's tail develops as it travels close to the sun.

Mars One - I don't know what to make of this one, it's a grand plan to land a team of people on Mars within 10 years and start a colony. They've got it all planned out but will it - literally and figuratively - get off the ground. Will they get the funding? If they do, then 2024-5 will be a very exciting time...

Have I missed space-wise happening this year?

Monday, 5 January 2015

'The Final Empire' by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Book One)

First book of the New Year was 'The Final Empire', the first book in the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. As with many people I suspect, I first heard about Brandon Sanderson when it was announced he had been chosen by Robert Jordan to finish off his Wheel of Time series, and have what I've heard he's done a good job of it. I haven't read those books yet, I gave up on The Wheel of Time many years ago. I promised myself that one day when it was complete I'd go back to it, but not got around to it yet.

Anyway, I picked up 'The Final Empire' and decided to have a go, despite the fact that I've read and enjoyed relatively few fantasy books in recent years, I've tended to go more for science fiction and other genres. I was pleasantly very surprised. I'll come on to why in a minute, but first a bit of a synopsis.

The book follows Vin, a street urchin in the Empire capital of Luthadel (I know, I know it's always either a street urchin or a farm/kitchen boy but it just works so well...). It's a rather grim sort of place, ruled over by the evil Lord Ruler, who is basically a god. He encourages the nobles to oppress and kill the poor (the "skaa") at every opportunity. She falls in with a rebel crew looking to overthrow the Lord Ruler. No one has even come close in over a thousand years, after all you can't kill a god, but then there's never been anyone like Kelsier before. A mistborn, the only person to ever survive the Pits of Hathsin, he believes he has found the key to defeating the Lord Ruler, and Vin has an important part to play in that.

For me, there are two things that really make this book stand out as different from other fantasy books that I've read. The first is that in this book, there isn't a looming threat of an evil overlord - he's already won and been in power for over a thousand years. The second is that the author has come up with a really interesting, unusual type of magic. Rather than wave a wand, cast an incantation or gather your will, focus etc, in this book all magic stems from metals. There are ten metals which you swallow and then 'burn' in your stomach to give yourself power. Each metal does something different. Really unusual, found this aspect fascinating.

The book isn't incredibly dense and is an easy read, but at the same time it isn't 'fantasy-lite' as some books I've read have been. There's meat on the bones, and a deep back-story that only starts being revealed in this first book.

A really good read and an excellent introduction to this talented fantasy author. I'll be reading more from this author in 2015, starting with the rest of this trilogy and moving on from there. 9/10.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year's Resolutions & Blogging in 2015

Happy New Year! For anyone out partying last night I hope you had a good time, and don't feel too worse for wear this morning. At this time of year, like many people I like to come up with some New Year's Resolutions to help me get what I want out of the year ahead. Also like many people I'm not overly good at sticking to them, but I'm going to give it a go anyway.
Photo by Trey Ratcliff

I read earlier this week some advice from an article in The Times newspaper about how to increase your chances of sticking to your new year resolutions. The advice was to sleep more and to pick just one resolution. Scientific studies have clearly shown that getting a decent amount of quality sleep each night improves your focus and resolve, allowing you greater willpower to do what you set out to do. Apparently 60% of people who slept well were still on course with their resolutions by the end of January, compared to 44% of those who didn't get a good night's sleep. The other bit of advice is to only choose one resolution, presumably as it is so much easier to only have one thing to focus on.

I am going to try and get plenty of sleep, but I'm not quite going to manage the second piece of advice. I am going to come close however, and choose just three goals, which are:

  1. To be less busy
  2. To read more
  3. To write more
How, you may ask, can you be less busy while doing more? Well I'm going to try to streamline a bit more, make the most of the time I have and focus on the things I really do want to do, leaving some of the other things aside. I always have too many interests and have a go at all sorts of different things, flitting from one to the other. By being more focused, I can do more of the things I really want to do.

Read more is fairly obvious, and if I'm a little less busy, I hopefully can make more time to read. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I read half the number of books in 2014 than I did in 2013, which given the sheer number and variety of books I really want to read, is something of a disappointment. On Goodreads I'm going to aim for 50 books again this year, which is what I read in 2013. Lets see how I get on...

Writing more is something I've had on my New Year Resolutions in many a year. This year though, I'm starting the year more resolved that this is something I want to focus on in 2015. I want to write regularly on my blog, so I am setting myself the realistic goal of a blog post a week on average which I think is very achievable. But there's lots more I want to write. In the last couple of months I've been exploring writing fiction again for the first time in a long, long time, and since the end of October I've written four short stories, which is four more than I managed in at least the five years previous. I'm under no illusions that they're any good, but its a start. So I'm hoping to write more fiction this year, and perhaps submit a few short stories to magazines and competitions if I think any are good enough. Beyond that, I'll see how it goes...