Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Invent technology to make interstellar travel possible. Use it to make rich people immortal.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former elite soldier – Envoy – who becomes a criminal on Harlan’s World and has his body killed. Thanks to the technology of stored consciousness – via cortical stacks – he is revived on Earth to solve the body death of one of the richest men on the planet. The police think Bancroft committed suicide, the evidence suggests suicide, but Bancroft is convinced he wouldn’t kill himself after centuries of living. Kovacs starts treading through the underbelly of Earth and tries to discover if it was suicide or murder.

Altered Carbon has been on my TBR pile for almost a decade. My uncle recommended it again a few years ago, which got it bumped up the list. But, as with all TBR piles, it took a TV adaptation to get the novel read. I enjoyed the TV series, particularly on a second viewing. I’d say I enjoyed the book a similar amount but in a different way.

I commented in a blog post about the show that I enjoyed the themes even if the aesthetic was borrowed from Blade Runner. Kovacs in the show is a grumpier and more adept character than the novel. The show also has a more personal feel to many of the characters and makes the female characters feel less like a description of sexy body parts. Pretty amazing given the amount of nudity in the show.

What I think I liked most about the novel was one of the themes. Morgan expressed it like this:

“Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.” Source.

This resonated with me given the sorts of non-fiction I’ve been reading lately. Not to mention some of the things happening in the world these days… It made this hard-boiled cyberpunk novel very entertaining.

Well worth reading before or after watching the TV show.*

A couple of quotes related to that theme:

“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.”

“You live that long, things start happening to you. You get too impressed with yourself. Ends up, you think you’re God. Suddenly the little people, thirty, maybe forty years old, well, they don’t really matter anymore. You’ve seen whole societies rise and fall, and you start to feel you’re standing outside it all, and none of it really matters to you. And maybe you’ll start snuffing those little people, just like picking daisies, if they get under your feet.”

* Is it accurate to call them TV shows now? We watch them on TV, but would it be more accurate to call them streaming shows since they aren’t made for TV networks?

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Book review: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile (Hercule Poirot, #17)Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than a group of rich people travelling together.

Hercule Poirot decides that he has earned himself a holiday and thinks it would be nice to travel up The Nile in Eygpt. As he ventures out he meets a newlywed couple, their stalker, their maid, their trustee, a romance novelist and her daughter, a socialite and her cousin and nurse, a mother and son, a communist, an archaeologist, a solicitor, a doctor, and Poirot’s friend Colonel Race. He is soon taken into the confidence of newlywed Linnet and her stalker Jacqueline and thinks that it will not be long before something tragic happens. But more than one person is targeting Linnet and it isn’t long before Poirot has another mystery to solve.

I read my first Agatha Christie Poirot novel a couple of years ago and felt that it was time for another. In that previous outing, I had enjoyed discovering many of the mystery tropes in their original form. This time, knowing what to expect, I was more interested in the story itself. Which was okay.

This mystery was interesting and I enjoyed the use of multiple crimes to muddy the waters. Christie certainly earned her reputation. But it did all feel just a little bit quaint. Whether it be the characters reminding you of the class system the Brits loved (and still do), or that the setting could have been the steamer or a country manor – as long as it had a sitting room. You can’t help but agree with the commie character that a few more could do with shooting.

I’m probably being a little harsh. This was a quick and entertaining read that was enjoyable. And they are making it into a movie soon, so best to read it before watching the movie.

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Book review: Old Scores by David Whish-Wilson

Old Scores (Frank Swann, #3)Old Scores by David Whish-Wilson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

New tourism campaign: Come to Perth, where you can grift in peace.

Former Detective, Frank Swann, is starting a job with the new Western Australian Premier. The exact nature of his job is unclear. The exact motives of those around him are even less clear. Power players are moving to get their slice of the development and mining booms that are starting. The “facilitators” have their hands out. The usual underworld players – from bikies to bank robbers – see their chance as well. And the target is painted on Frank as he’s caught in the thick of it.

Back in 2016, I was lucky enough to attend the book launch for Old Scores. As a long time fan of David’s, it surprised me to realise that over two years had elapsed since getting my signed copy. If I’m honest, I feel pretty guilty for not having read it immediately. I got there… eventually.*

David is a fantastic writer and Old Scores is another great crime novel from him. He delivers with a gritty and evocative style that us crime fans love. Set in Perth, you not only get the feel of the city, but you have a sense of the underbelly that shaped it. I was too young to really understand WA Inc, but David capitalises on those, and other, events to craft his own tale. In many ways, it is often hard to spot what is a fictionalised historical event and what is actual fiction.

Old Scores is a must for any crime fiction fan and for anyone who wants to get a sense of what Perth and Western Australia were like in the 1980s.

*I promise I’ll read the next one sooner, David.

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Book review: Choke by Stuart Woods

ChokeChoke by Stuart Woods

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Given the title, you’d think at least one person would be strangled in this story.

Former Wimbledon contender and now tennis club pro, Chuck Chandler, has moved to Key West after sleeping with the wrong person’s wife. Learning from his recent lesson, he starts sleeping with someone else’s wife. This does not end well and he’s soon in the frame for murder. A retired NYC homicide detective, Tommy Sculley, is seeing out his days as the Key West detective training a local rookie. He thinks there is more to this murder than Chuck’s philandering would suggest. A lot more.

In my efforts to explore my local library’s offerings, I came across NYT Bestselling Author Stuart Woods. I didn’t really have any expectations and was rewarded with as much. The twist was something I figured out before the first murder. Admittedly, I didn’t pick the entirety of the finale, but those extra details were window dressing. Figuring out the twist that early would have been fine if the rest of the novel was more compelling, but it just wasn’t. An example of this is that the two main characters – Chuck and Tommy – aren’t particularly interesting. How can you make a philandering tennis pro boring?

To summarise, Choke was only okay. It was just interesting enough to keep you reading but once you’ve finished you can’t think of anything noteworthy about it. Well, except that the local tennis pro is probably trying to have sex with your wife.

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Book review: Stone Cold by Robert B Parker

Stone Cold (Jesse Stone, #4)Stone Cold by Robert B. Parker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wonder if new sex partners actually enjoy being told how much you love your ex?

In the affluent town of Paradise, someone has decided to start killing people. Two shots to the chest. The victims are unconnected and there are no clues for Jesse Stone to investigate. As the pressure mounts, he has to balance the murder investigation against getting justice for the rape of a high school girl, and his love life. Especially when one of Jesse’s sex partners becomes a victim of the serial killer.

I’ve been meaning to read some of Robert B Parker’s novels for quite some time. Parker was regarded as one of the best detective crime novelists in contemporary (American*) fiction, like Michael Connelly or James Lee Burke. I can see the similarities between Parker and Connelly, both having a relatively bleak and realism to their investigative tales. The life of an investigation is important to Parker and Connelly’s narratives, which often involves waiting on the lab results, or going home without having solved the crime, or going on a drive to chase a dead-end – a Connelly staple. Parker tends to pare back the prose, however, which made this feel like quite a short and fast-paced novel.

I’m not sure if Stone Cold is a good representation of Parker’s writing or not, but this was only a serviceable crime novel. Nothing really elevated it above okay to my mind.

*An important caveat that is often left out of these accolades for American authors.

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Who Reads?

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Us readers know how awesome we are. And if we ever socially interacted with people everyone would realise that. We also want to know that we’re not alone. In a holistic sense. Obviously alone in the physical sense because otherwise, someone would try to interrupt our reading.

Sensing our need for connection to a nationwide community of book nerds, The Australian Arts Council commissioned a report to figure out who was reading books. The report surveyed 2,944 people to see who read, how much, how they found books, and whether they preferred waiting for the movie adaptation. Let’s see what they found.

Firstly they wanted to establish how often people read and how that compared to other leisure activities. Reading was obviously less popular than dicking around on the internet and watching TV, but apparently beat out exercise. Although they excluded sport, and Aussies have a funny definition of sport. But this finding is similar to 2006 ABS figures that suggest Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, versus 21 minutes for sport and outdoor activities, and 138 minutes for Audio/Visual Media (Table 3.3).

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Next are the reader categories. Non-readers were actually a small group, mostly male and more likely to have less education (although I wouldn’t read too much into that last detail). Occasional readers made up half the population and were defined as reading 1 to 10 books in the last 12 months. Frequent readers were a surprisingly large segment, were defined as reading more than 10 books in a year, and were mostly female, older, better educated, and clearly better looking with tonnes of charisma.

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Reading is to intellectuals what the bench press is to lifters. On the surface, they might appear to be a good representation, but most exaggerate how much to appear better than they really are. Oh, and they generally aren’t fooling anyone… So I’m a little suspicious of the popularity of reading suggested by the above figures.

For one, only 34% of Aussies have visited a library in the last 12 months (2009-2010 ABS data) and 70% of them attended at least 5 times. Yet this new survey suggests 39% of people borrowed one or more books from a library in the last month. That’s roughly comparative figures of 24% from the ABS and 39% from this survey.

I’m suspicious. This survey might not be as representative as claimed. Or reading may have suddenly risen in popularity since 2010… Doubtful given that both the ABS and this survey suggest otherwise. ABS suggested the amount of time spent reading had decreased by 2 hours between 1997 and 2006, whilst this survey suggested the book reading times were roughly the same as 5 years ago (Figure 8 – not presented).

The next figure of average reading rates either suggests Aussies are reading quite a bit, or inflating their numbers like an “all you” bench press. The average Aussie is reading 7 hours a week (5 of those for pleasure) and getting through 3 books a month (36 a year: not bad). Occasional readers are reading one book a month from 5 hours a week, compared to the Frequent readers who are reading 6 books a month from 11 hours per week (72 books a year: nice).

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But I’m not sure how accurate these claims are. I cited ABS figures above that suggested Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, or 2hrs 41mins (161 minutes) per week. So either one of these two samples is unrepresentative, or some people just love to inflate how much they read. I’m leaning toward the latter.* But you can trust me on my bench press numbers. Totally accurate and “all me”.

The final figure I found interesting was of favourite reading genre. When you included non-fiction and fiction genres there were two clear winners: Crime/Mystery/Thrillers; and Science Fiction/Fantasy.

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These are our favourites yet our bookstores would suggest that Sci-fi and Fantasy are niche and only deserving of a shelf at the back of the store. Cookbooks, memoirs, literature, and the latest contemporary thing that isn’t quite literature but isn’t exciting enough to be genre, are typically dominating shelves in stores. This would annoy me more if I wasn’t already suspicious of how representative this survey was, or how honest the respondents were being.

It could well be that people enjoy reading Thrillers and Fantasy but feel compelled to read other things. Maybe people are brow-beaten by the literary snobs to read only the worthy stuff and not the guilty pleasures. Maybe the snobs in Fort Literature have successfully turned favour against the invading Lesser Works. This might not be the case though, as 51% in this survey say they are interested in literary fiction but only 15% actually read it.

It could be that people are borrowing books from libraries or friends. Borrowing books is popular with 41% borrowing one or more books per month, mostly from friends (43%) and libraries (39%). But 39.5% bought at least one book in the last month (92% of 43% buying for themselves). So the tiny niche sections in bookstores for the most enjoyed genres still doesn’t make much sense.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I mean, aside from Yay, Reading!

For comparison, the USA Pew Research’s 2016 annual survey of readers data is presented below. This suggests that Aussies read more than Americans. Assuming people are being honest.

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“Key” insights from the Aussie research:

•  We value and enjoy reading and would like to do it more – 95% of Australians enjoy reading books for pleasure or interest; 68% would like to read more, with relaxation and stress release the most common reason for reading; and almost three-quarters believe books make a contribution to their life that goes beyond their cost. Over 80% of Australians with children encourage them to read.

• Most of us still turn pages but many are swiping too –  While print books still dominate our reading, over half of all readers in-clude e-books in the mix, and 12% audio books. Most Australians (71%) continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar shops, while half (52%) are purchasing online. Word of mouth recommendations and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop are our preferred ways to find out what to read next. At the same time, nearly a third of us interact with books and reading through social media and online platforms.

•  We are reading more than book sales data alone suggests – each month almost as many people borrow books (41%) as those who buy them (43%) and second-hand outlets are the third most popular source for buying books (39%), after major book chains (47%) and overseas websites (40%). Those who borrow books acquire them almost as frequently from public libraries as they do by sharing among friends.

•  We value Australian stories and our book industry – 71% believe it is important for Australia children to read books set in Australia and written by Australian authors; and 60% believe it is important that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. While there is a common perception among Australians that books are too expensive, more than half believe Australian literary fiction is important. Almost two-thirds of Australians believe books by Indigenous Australian writers are important for Australian culture.

•  We like mysteries and thrillers best – the crime/mystery/thriller genre is the most widely read and takes top spot as our favourite reading category. We also love an autobiography, biography or memoir. (Source)

* I’m biased toward the ABS survey results over the Australian Arts Council for a few reasons. The first is that the ABS data is part of a larger Time Use Survey (How Australians Use Their Time, 2006, cat. no. 4153.0), so this removes a few biases in how people would answer questions (i.e. ask people specifically about how awesome books are, you’re going to talk up your reading more). It is also the larger survey covering 3,900 households. The methodology was also more likely to produce better data since respondents were filling in a daily diary and being interviewed. The Arts Council methodology wasn’t bad, but the survey was developed by interest groups, so the questions were presuming some things.

Book review: The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum

The Water's EdgeThe Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre fiction is all about escapism, said no crime fiction fan ever.

A young boy’s body is found in a remote park. It is clear he has been abused and then dumped. The only lead Inspector Sejer has to go on is the man a young couple passed before discovering the boy. And then a second boy goes missing.

This was an incredibly hard book to read. There’s nothing quite like the lurid details of crimes against children to really make you squirm. Karin Fossum doesn’t just make you squirm from the crime itself, either, she seems to want you to be disgusted with humans, as she peels back the layers on all of the characters. Goal achieved.

While this was a tough read, it was still a good solid crime novel. Unlike many other crime authors, Fossum seems to be able to poke at the reader. This is both a good and a bad thing, as it makes The Water’s Edge hard to recommend to others – especially if you have kids – and to give 5 stars to. One for hardened crime fiction fans I’d say.

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