Book review: The Conquest of Bread by Peter Kropotkin

The Conquest of BreadThe Conquest of Bread by Pyotr Kropotkin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“All things are for all.” Not sure if that is an Amazon store tagline or an anarchist catchphrase.

Pyotr Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread is an outline of the failings of capitalistic systems, a critique of the failings of communist systems, and a proposal for a system free from hierarchies and poverty. Regarded as a classic text of political anarchism, particularly as the criticisms of communism were seen to come true in the twentieth century, Kropotkin is probably more relevant today than when he was writing.

The Conquest of Bread was an interesting read that I couldn’t help but feel was politically current, whilst being socially historical. The overall political message and much of the details Kropotkin goes into are insightful and you can see why the Occupy Movement and Breadtube were inspired by this book. With the rise of higher levels of mechanisation, and with the coming automation of huge parts of the economy, there is much to be said for a rethink of how our society is run based on these ideas.

Socially, however, many of the points are a little dated and/or naive. After reading chapter 9 (The Need for Luxury) I commented that this was definitely written a hundred years ago. While I don’t think he is incorrect, removing status and consumerist ideals does change our wants, it was a statement that did exist in a time when cars didn’t exist. This changed landscape necessitates a slightly different idea of what people want, need, and what will be “normal”.*

There were a couple of points that I disagreed with. Kropotkin was a little simplistic in dismissing “middlemen” as doing nothing. While Bullshit Jobs apply, there is still the need for things like distribution and organisation by middlemen. This is probably because Kropotkin is imagining a system that is much more localised than our current global system. Which leads to my next point on specialisation. While there is something to be said for his ideas around everyone pitching in and learning something of what others do and contribute, Kropotkin doesn’t really appreciate the idea of specialisation and having high levels of skill vs the average person who can do it but sucks at it. His example, which is a critique of Adam Smith’s pin maker, is true to an extent. But our modern technology operates at a much higher level now. There is no way an office worker could go out to the farm and be a farmer for a few days. They could do menial labour on the farm, sure, but farming is highly complex now, and not something you can just do for a few days a year, as he suggests.

I could go further into the problems with his understanding of agriculture, which is… antiquated. But those quibbles don’t detract from the idea of being able to provide food for all. In fact, removing the profit motive from agriculture might alleviate a lot of problems.

A very interesting read that I’d highly recommend.

* It was notable that while “men” were the focus, there were some particularly progressive ideas about women in society. If he had been writing after the advent of the pill, I’d bet the comments would have been downright modern.

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Book review: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are LegionThe Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gender reveal parties would be more interesting if you heard, “I’m pregnant with a cogwheel.”

The two most powerful civilisations in the Legion, the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas, are fighting for possession of the Mokshi world-ship. In the Legion, only the Mokshi is capable of escaping the decay infecting the world-ships. Zan is revived once more in the hopes of leading a force to capture the Mokshi. With little memory of any previous attempts, Jayd and Sabita hint at a larger plan they have in play. A plan that would see Zan and Jayd take on the Lords of the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas.

Last year I picked up Hurley’s collection of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution. Since I enjoyed that book, I decided to read one of her novels. After leaving this review for several days, I’m still not exactly sure what to say about The Stars Are Legion.

The obvious place to start with is the world-building, what with how much of the novel is dedicated to it. Hurley manages to use Zan’s journey to world-build very effectively. It would be easy to point at the amnesia and epic journey tropes and shake your head admonishingly, but I felt that it worked well. The characters are similarly complex and develop in interesting ways, even if they are all damaged and murderous.* And there is never a dull moment where the characters aren’t in mortal danger.

I think the reason I’m not sure how I feel about The Stars Are Legion is that several factors scratched away at me as I was reading. Damaged characters can be hard to connect with. The fact that I’m calling the hero’s journey the world-building shows that I wasn’t quite invested in the journey/action. And I also found I knew several “reveals” before they happened.** These issues made me more along for the ride rather than strapped in and engaged.

That said, this was a refreshingly different kind of sci-fi novel for me. There is a lot to enjoy for those who like darker stories and characters.

* And they are all female. Every character. Which was a pretty cool idea that was a neatly integrated part of the world-building. Gotta be honest, this was satisfyingly unique.
** In fairness, this could just be that these “reveals” were established well rather than cynically concealed within a barrel of red herrings or subverted in a way that throws the plot out the window.

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Book review: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global EconomyThe Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Mariana Mazzucato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if I told you that we don’t measure most of the things we value in our economy?

Mariana Mazzucato sets out to show that when we talk about the economy we are only talking about certain parts of it (and of our society). She shows how the parts that are included is determined primarily by the history of economic thinking, ideology, and what’s currently making people rich. Mariana then argues that this is flawed and fails to account for several very important aspects of the economy to our current and future detriment.

I’ve read several economics books over the past year that have addressed the failures of the neo-liberal economic ideology. The solid argumentation, countless references, piles of evidence, and rather obviousness of the problems leave me scratching my head as to why these books need to exist. Why isn’t this obvious to the various “experts” who are running our economy?

The Value of Everything is a very solid argument for rethinking the way we diminish the role of government in our economy. The current “get out of the way while we’re making money, but bail us out when we mess up”* approach is clearly wrong. I’ve heard the very charismatic arguments from the likes of Friedman on why free markets are the way to go, and I thought Mariana’s rebuttals to those arguments were good if a bit too charitable.** But it is clear that governments have a long history of being the innovators, investing early, creating the value that business then exploits, and without that, we’re going to see things fall in a heap.

Well worth a read so we can all start to take off our neo-liberal ideological goggles.

* Privatise profits, socialise losses.
** Worth reading this piece on the Virginian School, a more extreme version of Friedman’s Chicago School for some context as to how the “Free Market” is a con to turn the masses into slaves.

See also:
Curing Affluenza – this has a similar upbeat “fixing” approach to our current system.
Utopia for Realists – takes a different approach and suggests a different system may be needed.
Austerity: History of a dangerous idea – similarly documents some of the failures of neo-liberalism and how it is ideologically driven.

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Book review: Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff

Summon the Keeper (Keeper Chronicles #1)Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can check-in, but you may never leave.

Claire Hansen is a Keeper drawn to the run-down Elysian Fields Guest House. When she arrives, the owner forges her signature on the deeds and does a runner, leaving her in charge of one employee, one permanent guest, one ghost, and one gateway to hell. With the help of her cat, Austin, she might be able to figure out how to close the gateway. Or she might be stuck there forever.

For our wedding anniversary, we went shopping at a specialist sci-fi and fantasy bookstore. My purchase was the Keeper Chronicles. Yeah, we know how to celebrate. We’re kinky. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tanya Huff, but I was promised a fun story with humour. I think it is fair to say Summon the Keeper delivered on that promise.

The book meanders along, introducing characters, having those characters banter with one another, introducing a few random elements, and generally giving you the feeling that you’re just reading a series of scenes. Then Huff ties everything together in an exciting and fast-paced finale that almost blindsides you. I think that feeling of meandering through the bulk of the story is the only reason I’m not diving straight into the next instalment in the series.

Overall, I enjoyed this paranormal – or is that urban fantasy – novel and will be reading the rest of the Keeper Chronicles in the coming months.

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Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Grant Hardy

Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual TraditionGreat Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Grant Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Study extensively, inquire carefully, ponder thoroughly, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.” Zhu Xi

The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition is a 36 lecture course covering the influential philosophers and thinkers of India, China, Korea, and Japan. Much like the Western version of this series, the aim is to give a brief overview and insight into a range of people and intellectual schools stretching from the ancient times to the modern-day.

When I finished the Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, I tried to find an equivalent version covering the Eastern Intellectual Tradition. It appears Grant Hardy had been thinking the same thing and put this course together. There is so much material to cover here that you can’t help but be impressed by the endeavour.

Unlike the western version, Hardy is the sole lecturer for this course. That is both a strength and a weakness. Where the other course had some ups and downs in the quality of lectures, Hardy was consistent and maintained a throughline for the series. But it also meant you weren’t presented with a singular expert on any of the topics to offer a range of perspectives and insights. In this way, the material felt a little more shallow.

The strength of this series is the general overview of the Eastern philosophical, religious, and intellectual history. Hardy also recommended some texts (aside from the included course notes) to help with further study. This course is well worth undertaking as a general overview.

From the course overview:
When compared with the West, Eastern philosophical thought is much more inextricably linked with spiritual concepts and beliefs. To help you make sense of the unfamiliar nature of Eastern philosophy and its strong ties with spirituality, Professor Hardy has organized this course into four basic parts.

  • Part One traces the origins of Eastern philosophy in the cosmological and theological views that arose in India and China beginning around 1200 B.C., including Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Daoism.
  • Part Two explores the famous developers of legalism, Mahayana and Chinese Buddhism, yoga, and other intellectual schools that emerged during the age of early Eastern empires and built on the foundations of the past.
  • Part Three focuses on the great thinkers who flourished starting in the early 12th century, many of whose schools of thought—including Sikhism, Vedanta Hinduism, and Neo-Confucianism—revolutionized cultural notions of society, aesthetics, and faith.
  • Part Four delves into the modern era, when the convergence of East and West spurred the development of philosophical beliefs that became even more politicized and blended with independence movements and that reacted to ideologies such as Communism and capitalism.

Throughout your chronological journey, you’ll spend a majority of time among the three major countries that form the core of the Eastern intellectual tradition, exploring their unique philosophical themes and spiritual paths.

    • India: The concepts of reincarnation, cosmic justice, and liberation; a focus on logical analysis and direct insight (often achieved through yoga or meditation); the union of religion and politics; and more.
    • China: A constant appeal to the past in guiding the present; practical views that highlight harmony, balance, and social order; a keen appreciation of the cycles of nature; a form of politics that balances legal constraints with personal ethics; and more.
    • Japan: The adaptation and transformation of Confucianism; a distinct philosophy of aesthetics; a focus on group identity and consensus; an openness to adaptation from the Western world; and more.

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Book review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CityZoo City by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes the albatross around your neck is alive.

Zinzi December is scraping by finding lost things and writing email scams to pay off her debts. Her life as a Zoo, someone magically saddled with an animal for their misdeeds (a sloth), in South Africa is a struggle to stay afloat. When one of her clients is murdered she is offered a job finding a lost teen pop-idol. The money is too good. The job isn’t.

It’s been a few years since I met Lauren at a writers festival. In that time I’ve read several of her books, including The Shining Girls and her collection of short stories. She always manages to bring something fresh to the page. If I was to tell you that characters in this book have a spirit animal magically tied to them you’d immediately think His Dark Materials. Well, no, nothing like that at all. In The Shining Girls, there was time travel. Nope, not in the way you’re thinking. And that is the skill Lauren brings to the page.

Zoo City is a compelling read. The world feels dirty and nasty inhabited with characters who are hustling or surviving. And the missing person case is a great excuse to traipse through this world. But this strength is also why some people may not enjoy the book. After spending some time in Zoo City you feel in need of a shower and there is a sense of hopelessness or nihilism. Best to know that going in or this could turn you off.

I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s other novels.

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Book review: Tripwire by Lee Child

Tripwire  (Jack Reacher, #3)Tripwire by Lee Child

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m going to refrain from making any applause or hot jokes. We need that like a nail in the head.

Reacher is digging swimming pools in Florida when a private detective comes looking for him. Later that day two thugs come looking for him as well and he finds the detective dead. This motivates Reacher to go to New York to find out what is going on. Who is looking for him? And what has that got to do with MIA Vietnam soldiers?

This was the second time I’ve read Tripwire. The first time I thought it was enjoyable but not one of the best in the series. I think that judgement still holds but is slightly less enjoyable for a second read. I think part of the problem was that this is a much earlier novel in the series so it felt somewhat less polished in its execution compared to the tight prose Lee is known for. But Tripwire is also early enough in the series that some of the superhuman aspects of Reacher have not yet surfaced.*

Something else I noticed was the ending. It would not surprise me if Tripwire marks the end of Lee’s first publishing contract. There is a feeling that he was writing a potentially final instalment. It’s a bit funny when you know how many more Reacher adventures there are and how at odds Tripwire’s ending is with that.

I wonder how I will feel about Bad Luck And Trouble or 61 Hours now?**

Tripwire was enjoyable but certainly not peak Reacher.

* Which is ironic given the ending. Although, that ending is very plausible. There was a well-known bodybuilder who experienced a similar incident with the same results for the same reasons.

** I’ve re-read a few books of late (E.g. Ice Station). Some haven’t been as entertaining, but others have been just as good, if not better upon a second (or third, in several cases fourth and fifth) read(s). I am noticing a pattern to which ones are better and which aren’t. This may be something I will have to assess in greater detail at some stage.

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Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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Book review: Superhuman by Evan Currie

Superhuman (Superhuman, #1)Superhuman by Evan Currie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Little known fact: just about everyone has been in the military. Apparently.

Former Marine, Captain Alex Hale, is meeting up with his mates/buddies. They are all ex-military and now love to catch up to wear leathers and go biking. The two local bikie gangs have chosen the same night and location to go to war with one another. They roll on the same campgrounds, armed, and ready for mayhem. Just as the shooting starts something intervenes. When the survivors awake, they have been changed. They are now Superhuman.

A few chapters into this novel I pulled out my phone to check some details. Not my usual fact-checking (although, there was need of that too), but to see who had published this novel. The answer didn’t surprise me.

My biggest criticism of this book is that it felt like a first draft, not a completed novel. Throughout there were so many little things that hadn’t been tidied up that it brought a lot of other problems into view. Normally you wouldn’t notice those issues because this novel is quite fast-paced and entertaining. If only more effort had been put in this could have been a really good action story. Instead, it feels like a let-down.

And I have to mention the genetics mistakes. There is one scene with “scientists” rabbiting on about gene editing, DNA, and various other sciency sounding stuff. It would have been nice if those “scientists” had at least read the Wikipedia article on Non-Coding DNA before talking about it. I mean, Wiki is right there for everybody. You don’t even have to mortgage your house to buy a genetics textbook.

I’m being generous with the 3 Stars because Superhuman was quite fun to read, especially the last third of the book. But Superhuman felt amateurish and the material deserved better.

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Book review: The Cult of Osiris by Andy McDermott

The Cult of Osiris (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase, #5)The Cult of Osiris by Andy McDermott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

M: Is there anything you haven’t blown up?
N&E: Pyramids.
M: Wanna go to Eygpt?

After their last adventure, Nina has been disgraced and is out of work, while Eddie is playing bodyguard to entitled movie stars. Things are looking depressing until an undergraduate on a dig in Eygpt sees something she shouldn’t have and turns to Nina for help. In no time at all, they are all running for their lives from a dangerous new cult. What secrets does the dig hold that is worth killing for?

It’s been two years since my last Nina and Eddie adventure. I commented in that review how comforting it is to slip back into one of these novels. Andy manages to combine outlandish action, ridiculous plots, larger than life bad guys, a spot of humour, and manages to keep you on the edge of your seat. Many try to do this and fail. Andy manages to do it with the amp cranked to eleven.

The Cult of Osiris was very much like that experience. It was exactly the right kind of fun I needed. This was one of several Andy McDermott novels I bought to fill in the instalments I’ve missed. It was interesting to come back to an earlier adventure after having read several later ones. Artefact-McGuffin-Adventure novels are hard to do this well, but every Nina and Eddie adventure has managed to be extremely fun to read.

Good thing I have some more on my shelf to read.

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Book review: Thirteen by Richard K Morgan

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When society stops being violent someone will try to genetically re-engineer violence.

Carl Marsalis is a specialist bounty hunter. Genetically engineered and indoctrinated from birth to be a dangerous weapon, he now hunts others like him. After landing in prison in the wrong part of the former USA – Jesusland – he is seconded to track down someone who is killing his way across the former USA after eating his way through the crew of a Mars-to-Earth flight. But the cannibal seems to be a step ahead of the game and not picking targets at random. It’s as though he has help and is possibly working for someone as their hitman.

After recently finishing the Altered Carbon series, I decided to see what other Morgan novels I could get my hands on. Thirteen promised to be similar to Altered Carbon. The setting was similarly cyber-punk, the mystery/detective narrative is front and centre, and Marsalis likes to get violent and have sex with any and all female characters.

But where Altered Carbon used those elements in a compelling way, Thirteen was too indulgent with them. The novel feels padded out and runs far too long. This leads to pacing problems, with some sections really bogging down. The charisma of Kovacs is not present in Marsalis, despite their similarities, so you don’t feel the same thrill from him dispatching a bad guy or having the love interest* throw herself at him.

I think I could have forgiven those aspects a bit more if it weren’t for the “conversations” between characters about genetics. These were long discussions that bashed the reader with the point. I’d have had less of a problem with them if they weren’t quite so wrong on the science. The “conversations” amounted to telling us that we are essentially only our genetics. That’s not only nonsense (GxExM is how we discuss genetics in science) but is pretty much spouting modern-day scientific racism.**

That point is particularly ironic given the obvious analogies for racism and backward thinking being drawn. “Look at how backward these religious bigots are. Look at how badly they treat black people. Hey, check out my thinly veiled racism disguised as science!” I don’t know if I missed something, but this really did read to me as admonishing racism whilst justifying it as not something we can get over. If that was Morgan’s point, then it would have been great if he could have done it in about 150 pages less.

With all that said, this was still enjoyable and I am looking forward to reading more from Morgan.

* I’m being overly flippant and critical here. Sevgi Ertekin is a fairly well-developed character but her role does appear to be just the love interest and character motivation.

** Yes, scientific racism is back. Modern-day phrenology comes in many forms. Often it is IQ studies and hereditarianism, sometimes it is labelled Human Biodiversity (HBD), other times it will be straight up eugenicists and white nationalists. Reading about its insidious creep into academia and mainstream discourse is sickening.

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Book review: Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters

Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the NationGame of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation by Cameron Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t want to see the final season of Game of Mates, I’ve heard the entire thing falls flat.

Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters set out to expose the inner workings of the Australian economy in Game of Mates. Through a series of case studies, they outline how a few (the Jameses) take from the many (the Bruces) by blurring the line between business and the regulators. Then, knowing that their readers will be suitably gobsmacked and annoyed, call for the masses (Bruces) to make a change.

As with any book about real-life grifting in the halls of power, this book made me annoyed and disillusioned. There is nothing more galling than to have someone show you how the grift is endemic and then realise you kinda knew. We kinda all know. There is no surprise here. And that means there is no “justice”. Cue scene of me staring out the window as rain drips down it.

Murray and Frijters conclude with some ways to stop the grift:

1) Reclaim the value of grey gifts for the public.
Essentially, when the grifters rig the system they gift themselves advantage/money/power. We have to tear that down. One example was Public-Private Partnerships on infrastructure developments, which essentially end up being a gift of public assets to private businesses with a guaranteed profit underwritten by the public.

2) Disrupt (James’) the grifters’ coordination.
This is fairly obvious, stop the revolving door between public and private interests, put in oversight, make sure the oversight isn’t part of the problem, etc.

3) Bust the myths (James) the grifters use.
This isn’t just about addressing the claims cherry-picked “experts” will make, such as promoting projects that aren’t needed (examples are given, there are plenty). This is also about reclaiming the narrative from these grifters. In Australia, this is particularly difficult as many of the media outlets are either owned or have close links to the same people grifting.

4) Fight back.
Disillusion can lead to apathy. That’s what keeps us on the losing end.

Speaking of the losing end, the costs of this game are:

  • New Housing – 70% of the gains from rezoning;
  • Transportation infrastructure – 68% of the investment;
  • Superannuation – 27% gobbled up;
  • Mining – 48% of the profits;
  • Banking – 60% more expensive for the masses;
  • Taxes – 23% extra taxation borne by the masses (I’ve seen a figure suggesting this is a global issue and sees the average person taxed proportionally more);
  • Pharmacies, medicines, and health – 10% more expensive;
  • Higher education – 100% more expensive…

Okay, so clearly this book hit the mark and is enlightening. Why only three stars, I hear someone say? Well, while I appreciate your question, I’m wondering what you’re doing in my house.

I think the problem I had with this book was the polemic style to it. We are told. I listed the figures above, and whilst those numbers are backed up, they are big claims that require fairly solid evidence. I felt the evidence was a bit flimsy. Not wrong, but maybe selective, or misrepresentative.

Another example was around how to stop the revolving door which amounted to banning people from getting a different job in the same industry. That’s probably not as well thought out as it needs to be.

Game of Mates is worth reading but it felt underdone.

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Book review: The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

The Three Secret Cities (Jack West Jr #5)The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world is only days away from destruction. Again. Again.

With only a few hours rest after winning The Great Games, Jack West Jr is thrown back into the fray. The secret ruling elite’s world has been thrown into disarray with only a few days to save the world. They don’t think they need Jack’s help, so they send a secretive order of assassins after him. But without Jack and his team, the chances of saving the world are close to zero.

I finally got around to reading my Xmas present. I have a standing order for Matthew Reilly books that my parents dilligently fulfil. Ever since picking up my first Scarecrow adventure, I’ve been hooked on Reilly’s fast-paced thrill-rides. The Three Secret Cities was once again a fast-paced thrill-ride.

But…

After thoroughly enjoying The Four Legendary Kingdoms I was excited to see what else would happen in this three-part Jack West Jr adventure. One of my earlier criticisms of the Jack West Jr series was that it often felt like stuff just happened, that you were reading a series of explosions without the peril and tension. The Four Legendary Kingdoms didn’t have that feeling. But after finishing The Three Secret Cities that sense of stuff just happening was back.

This left me with a troubling thought: have Reilly’s books always been heavy on the explosions and light on the peril of those explosions, has Reilly lost a step, or am I just not as entertained by Reilly as I once was? I noted in my revisit review of Ice Station that several things suddenly annoyed me and were suddenly distracting. So it is possible that I’m not enjoying Reilly’s novels like I once did.

While this does sound like strong criticism, The Three Secret Cities was still solidly entertaining. I just hope the next instalment has plenty of peril. Suddenly.

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Book review: Whispering Death by Garry Disher

Whispering Death (Inspector Challis, #6)Whispering Death by Garry Disher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cat burglary seems like a career that should involve more standing near open doors deciding whether to go out.

Inspector Hal Challis is reaching the end of a chapter in his life. A new relationship, a career he’s frustrated with, a dying car, and a finished hobby. But the town of Waterloo has become the scene of a series of sexual assaults by a man disguised as a copper, a bank robber is making the rounds, and a cat burglar is making her presence felt. A great time to tell the local press exactly what you think about budget cuts.

If I’m remembering correctly, this is my third Garry Disher novel and second Challis story. Disher is to Australian crime writing what Ian Rankin is to the UK and Michael Connelly is to the US. He is respected, consistent, and knows how to tell a tale. Whispering Death is one of those solid and consistent crime novels.

I’m writing this review a few days after having finished reading Whispering Death. And I think my characterisation of this novel as “solid and consistent” is also partially a criticism as well as praise. It’s an entertaining read and I think many will want to read more about Grace the cat burglar in a future instalment (or spinoff). But I’m also noticing that even though it has only been a few days, I can’t really think of anything that memorable about the book to mention here.*

That said, Disher continues to entertain and I look forward to reading more of his Challis (and Wyatt) series.

* As my wife pointed out to me, this could be a factor of my age. I’m no longer a twenty or thirty-something. A solid book has plenty of other solid books to blend in with in my increasingly fuzzy memory (having kids ruins your brain) compared with a decade or more ago. So as I age and read more, the harder it will be to entertain me. The fewer thrills I will receive from even great authors with great books. Until finally, no longer able to find joy in the simple pleasure of reading, I commit suicide by Dan Brown.

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Book review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing you have to lose is your car keys. And chains.

“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

The Communist Manifesto was part of my reading project to have some actual knowledge about the current bogeymen of cultural discourse. How could it not be? Various (sarcasm alert) intellectual giants, including Canadian self-help gurus and fake universities, have blamed Marx personally – poor Engels, always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and communism generally for every malady of the last 150 years. Obviously, they would know this after having studiously analysed the Manifesto… oh, and all of the hundreds of other texts on the subject.

What struck me about this text is how it captures a few essences of society, both then and now, with an insight that resonates. But it also manages to feel immature and underdeveloped compared to the later writings from Marx and Engels. From my further reading, this appears to be a common criticism.

There were interesting insights into women’s and workplace rights. These ideas from Marx and Engels’ have had to be implemented in our society. They realised that a capitalistic society couldn’t function the way it did. So those changes have been implemented. And it took social and union movements to make our society function, but not the communist revolution Marx and Engels expected.

Another interesting aspect was the definition of bourgeoise socialists. The idea of people advocating for small manageable changes to gradually improve society sounded an awful lot like centrist liberals or socially conscious millionaires/billionaires. They will admit the system is rigged and that it is unfair, but do you honestly expect them to sleep on less than 800 thread count sheets? Who is the real victim here?*

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms of the Manifesto. As an example, people like Sloterdijk have criticised Communism for channelling rage from their life in the direction of an “other” – in this case, the rich/capitalists. This rage is channelled by the ruling class of the communist movement and used to empower themselves. I.e. it becomes just another control mechanism, exchanging one oppressive power for another.

But it is clear from the Manifesto that this is/was not the intention. Something many critics miss.** Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal. Maybe this was a fatal flaw in his thinking, such that if he had been more prescriptive his writings wouldn’t have been used by authoritarian/totalitarian people to seize power.

There has been a lot of academic and scholastic work on Marxism since The Communist Manifesto. But this short work still remains a worthwhile read.

* See my review of Winners Take All.

** And let’s be honest, it is deliberately missed. Communism is the “other” of the 20th century. They were the evil we could rally together to defeat. So actual understanding of communism has been deliberately negatively framed. “Look at all those starving people under communism! Ignore all the starving people under capitalism!”

See my review of Socialism a Short Introduction.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/

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Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it does take PhDs in math and physics to explain where babies come from.

In 1952 Elma York and her husband are on a weekend retreat when a meteorite wipes out the east coast of the USA. Elma flies them to safety only to realise that this strike was an extinction-level event. The fledgeling space program is thrown into overdrive, with Elma and her husband deeply involved. But in the race to colonize space, a few people are being overlooked for humanity’s future, and Elma wants to see women go into space too.

Quite simply, I loved this book.

There were so many moments where you feel the frustrations, joys, and unfairness of the 1950s. This is a very human tale mixed with the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the early space program – reimagined, of course. And while this comes across as hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make the plot nor pacing drag.

Normally I’m not a fan of the alternate history tales. Often they feel gratuitous and unnecessary, like dragging in various famous historical figures for cameos – hey look, Mark Twain is on the Enterprise!! But here the alternate history felt like it served the plot and themes well, and not just some stoned writer saying, hey, what if…

Well worth reading.

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Book review: Woken Furies by Richard K Morgan

Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those feels when you have to take time off from murdering religious zealots to overthrow the establishment.

Kovacs is a one-man army stalking a series of religious zealots on his home planet of Harlan’s World. In the aftermath of one assassination, he runs afoul of the Yakuza and befriends a mercenary. The merc, Sylvie, invites him to join her team decommissioning sentient military hardware in the un-settlement zone. During this operation, Sylvie collapses and appears to take on a new personality, the long-dead revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer. Together they are being hunted by the ruling elite, a revived younger Kovacs, and the Yakuza. Their only hope is to restart the Quellist rebellion.

I’ve read all three Takeshi Kovacs novels over the last two months and have enjoyed them all. There is the entertaining surface level to the stories: a hard-boiled noir detective story, military adventure, and in this instalment a more standard thriller. Then underneath that, there is an interesting socio-political discussion that has culminated in the plot of this final novel in the series. In some respects, Woken Furies is the most in-depth look at the socio-political world Morgan has created, as well as having the most social criticism. For some, this could be a bit offputting, but I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the series.

The only problem I had with Woken Furies was that it felt as though it was padded out a bit too much. It is significantly longer than the previous novels (probably 40% longer at a guess) and I’d have preferred it at roughly the same length as those other two. It’s a little churlish to complain about a book you’re enjoying giving you hours more entertainment, but in many ways, I’m a petty man.

A good conclusion to an enjoyable series.

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Book review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling when you call someone a young whippersnapper and realise it’s your reflection in the mirror.

Widower John Perry has reached his seventy-fifth birthday and enlisted. The Colonial Defense Force are waging war across the universe and need old feeble bodies to join their fighting forces. After some upgrades and basic training, Perry and his new comrades are sent off to meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as possible.

When I finished reading I knew exactly what I was going to say about Old Man’s War. My entire review could be summarised as: It was fine. Just fine.

I decided to read Old Man’s War after my mixed feelings from reading Redshirts. To assuage those mixed feelings, I picked up Scalzi’s highest-rated book. And in many respects, it delivered. The “fresh” take on classic sci-fi novels from the likes of Heinlein was entertaining. But unlike those classics, I found myself nitpicking at various ideas and premises rather than being filled with wonder.

One of the premises I found hard to swallow was that in the infinite reaches of space, habitable planets are hotly contested property. Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around that one. Even Scalzi’s handwaving explanation in the book feels like someone fully cognizant of just how much hand flapping he’s doing.* Given that this is the central conceit for the novel, it felt like there either needed to be better groundwork or less attention drawn to how close that premise circles the plot hole.

In my review of Redshirts, I noted two things that apply to Old Man’s War as well. He said. He said. The first is that this novel is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. It’s only upon reflection that I realised that many of the scenes were meant to be funny. Not the ideal time to notice the jokes. The second was the dialogue tags that often felt redundant and only there to remind you that the dialogue that could have been said by anyone had been said by a specific anyone.

This was an okay novel. Old Man’s War was entertaining enough to read but after two novels I’m not sure Scalzi entertains me enough for a third.

* And related to that particular scene was a scene that justified war and implied diplomacy didn’t have a place in this world. I’m not sure if that scene was meant to be ridiculously heavy-handed or if it was meant to be funny. Bit of a fail whichever way it was meant to fall.

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Book review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s so unrealistic to have Disney gradually taking over the world.

Jules has moved in with his girlfriend Lil – someone 15% his age at ~20 – at Disney World. As members of the ad hoc who had taken over Disney with the rise of the post-scarcity, post-death, Bitchun Society, they were there to have fun and accumulate Whuffie. His old friend Dan reappears in his life and someone murders Jules. Then another ad hoc tries to take over Jules and Lil’s part of Disney. Where reputation is everything, they have to put theirs on the line to fight back.

I’d heard of Cory Doctorow long before I realised he was an author. Sure, he was at writers festivals and associated events, but he never seemed to be there promoting a book so much as talking about copyright or Amazon or what sort of barrel publishing houses used with authors. So it has taken me quite a while to pick up one of his books.

I’m not sure how to rate this book. It was a fun read. The world-building was done effortlessly and didn’t pad things out – refreshing after the last sci-fi novel I read and DNF’d. Cory has also added in some very interesting ideas and explorations, particularly around what would happen post-scarcity and post-death. He even manages to stick the satirical boot in.

But now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not sure there was anything particularly remarkable about it. Possibly my feelings on the matter are related to the somewhat bland ending. Possibly it is related to how the moral questions raised were answered with a shoulder shrug. Maybe it’s just that this was a good but not great novel that promised more.

An entertaining read that explores some interesting territory.

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Book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist RevolutionThe Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beastie Boys said you gotta fight for your right to… exist?

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of Kameron Hurley’s essays that tie to the themes of feminism, representation in media, and not putting up with bullshit. Some of the essays also discuss being an author and all the fun that entails.

After finishing this collection I feel remiss for not having read any of Hurley’s work previously. I picked up a copy from the library after my sister recommended it to me – it’s literally the only title they have of Kameron’s. Hurley is passionate, often angry, and always eyeing off ways to make the world suck a little less.

It is difficult to go into specifics given the range of topics covered. Some highlights were around the 20-30% figure and women’s erasure from “the narrative” of history. That statistic is the fairly consistent proportion of women involved in conflicts throughout history. They have always fought, but that is not the way history is told to us. The concept of a dominant narrative that suits and reinforces ruling social structures is not new to me, but one I don’t feel I’ve heard enough about, making it always welcome in my reading. The insights on being a speculative fiction author were also excellent.

The only aspect that I didn’t enjoy in this collection was that it was a tad repetitive. That is to be expected with a collection of previously published essays. There’s bound to be a bit of overlap.

A very interesting collection of essays, particularly for those interested in speculative fiction and pop-culture.

Your voice is powerful. Your voice has meaning. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t work so hard to silence you.
Remember that.

 

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