Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

Although I'm a long-time fan of Science Fiction, I have to admit that the vast majority of what I read comes from either the United States or the United Kingdom, with a little Canada thrown in occasionally (but usually not on purpose), so when it comes to world Science Fiction, I'm pretty much limited to the Polish author Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) and that's about it.

So I was thrilled to see that last years Hugo winner for best novel was a book out of China; specifically The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and that it was the first of a trilogy that have recently been translated into English.

The story begins in 1967, during China's Cultural revolution, and taking place over the next fifty years involves conspiracy, extra-terrestrial communication, and an intriguing video game called "The Three-Body Problem". Much of the novel works as as a fast-paced techno thriller in which scientists around the world begin stopping research (and worse), but refuse to explain why, and a nanotechnologist who gets involved in the game and ends up finding it involves something much bigger than he ever imagined.

In some ways, the book shares concepts with Ernest Cline's Ready Player One or Terry Pratchett's Only You Can Save Mankind, but the similarities are superficial at best. A big part of what I love about this novel is how well it paints people and their motivations over the course of their lives. The fact that almost all of the events of the novel take place in China (a country I am not nearly as familiar with as I should be), actually helped me in terms of connecting with characters, as I found the setting so different from my own.

I don't want to go into how the novel ends or any of the big reveals, but it is well worth the read and you'd better believe I'll be checking up on the sequel The Dark Forest.

Monday, March 21, 2016

My Reading Habits This Week have gotten complicated...

Due to a series of library due dates, an inability to renew popular titles, and my own hubris, I'm currently working my way through three novels and a comic book series at the same time.

Like most people (I assume), I normally pick up one book and read it until I finish and then pick up another, but I'm currently reading Charles de Lint's urban fantasy novel Memory and Dream,  Caleb Carr's The Alienist, and Justin Cronin's The Passage, as well as the recent Marvel comics title Ghost Rider.

Kind of like the film Inception, I'm reading my comics at an accelerated pace (5-6 issues a day), while reading The Alienist at about 100-pages-a-day, The Passage at about 50-pages a day, and Memory & Dream at about 25-pages-a-week.

My books are about, in turn, a ghost, fairies, a serial killer (probably) in late 1800s New York City, and the end of the world via Vampire Apocalypse.  

And they're all really good!

Hopefully by the end of the week I'll be down to three books and if I'm lucky I'll be down to two books by the end of the Easter long weekend, but we'll see how much free time I end up with.

Reading can be tricky!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: Last of the Amazons

My third historical novel focusing on Ancient Greece (specifically the Bronze Age) is Last of the Amazons (2002) by Steven Pressfield. Although the story focuses largely on the same events from Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea (1962), the perspective is entirely different.

The story works as flashbacks within flashbacks; following a character called Mother Bones, who, in her youth, along with her older sister, was raised by an Amazon survivor of the Athenian-Amazon war in fifth-century BCE Greece. As Theseus (yes, the fellow who beat the Minotaur) features as a main character in the novel, it firmly straddles history and mythology, but for me, one of the most fascinating parts of the novel was its structure.

Narrated in turns by Mother Bones, who recalls stories told to her by her Governess Selene, and after the key event of the novel, also includes narration by both Mother Bones father and uncle, a picture is painted of one of the most brutal wars I’ve read about in fiction. Much like the female horse-riding clans in Suzy McKee Charnas’ Holdfast series, the novel attempts to paint of picture of a warrior woman culture and how it would look in times of peace, dispute, and war, and yes, when we get into the violence of the novel it is brutal.

An intriguing read, and definitely one that will lead me to checking out other books by the same author.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Preparing for a presentation

Hi All, sorry it's been a little longer than usual for my post, I spent last week preparing for a lecture for a Graduate Class on Information Policy.

On Thursday I headed back to my old stomping grounds, the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta to give a talk on my current work with Open Government.

Public speaking has always been a little tricky for me - I'm happy to volunteer, and even more happy to do it once I'm in front of a group and talking, but the lead up to these things can be quite stressful.

So having done a few public speaking events over the years, here are my key tips to making it through.

1) Realize Stress is normal
Totally honest fact - ten minutes before I gave my talk I was literally thinking "I could just run - I'm sure the class will move ahead without me!"  For me, this is totally normal - I knew I wasn't actually going to run off before a presentation, but acknowledging that it is stressful helps.  Public Speaking is stressful.

2) Preparation is key
Whether you spend your time creating slides or simply mumbling your speech to yourself over and over again in the days leading up to the talk, this will help you get going once you've begun to talk

3) Ask for help!
Whether having a friend or loved one look over your talk, or even just explaining to a co-worker the key points you want to touch on, this gives the people around you a chance to help and a way to point out any obvious holes or conflicts in your logic.

So there you go - not sure how often the advice will come in handy, but at least it may give you a place to start.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Book Review: Expiration Date

The second in Tim Powers "Fault Lines" series, following Last Call, Expiration Date (1995), focuses on ghosts and the effect they have on those they leave behind. As with Last Call, the book follows a number of characters connected to the fantastic conceit of the novel (the devouring of ghosts by the living, rather than spells that can be cast using playing cards, which was the conceit behind Last Call), including a ten-year-old orphaned (sorry for the 21-year-old spoiler) in the first chapter, a burnt out therapist, an ex-assistant to an exorcist, and Thomas Edison.

The book looks at a number of original concepts, and as someone who reads a lot of urban fantasy, it's kind of nice to read a title that isn't dependent on a Vampire/Werewolf/Demon lover of a young girl, which seems to make up the bulk of the sub-genre. Powers does sometimes lose my attention as a number of his characters are very vocal about not wanting to be involved - which can be an interesting character aspect, but is easy to bleed into the reading experience if repeated enough in the book.

In the end I didn't quite like it as much as Last Call, but it was still a fun read nonetheless and I'm looking forward to reading the final work in the series, Earthquake Weather later this month.

Also - check out the new (thematically related) trailer for Ghostbusters!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Do I have the face of a Dungeonmaster?

DungeonMaster from the 1983-85
Dungeons & Dragons series on CBS 
So on my way to work today I swing by my local coffee shop and get myself a cup of java to start my day (two cream, no sugar), and on my way out one of the staff says to me - "Let me know if you're looking for players!"

Now I've spoken to this fellow a time or two about whatever book I'm currently reading (usually something in the Horror, Science Fiction, or Fantasy genres), and he has mentioned that he enjoys table top role playing games. But that's been about the end of our discussions.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere, he suggestions he'd be up for playing a game if I'm running one.

The thing is, I haven't run a role playing game (or RPG as the cool kids call it) in about a decade.

To be fair, between the ages of fifteen and thirty, I consistently ran or played in weekly games ranging from classic Dungeons & Dragons to Science Fiction games like Robotech or Cyberpunk and my fair share of horror games (Vampire: the Masquerade) as well. I think the last batch of games I ran finished somewhere around 2006 or 2007.

But for some reason, something about me just said "DungeonMaster" (or GameMaster, Storyteller, or GM, depending on your particular poison) to this guy, and it got me thinking - do I have some sort of gamer tell? Some sort of gesture I do that says "This guy needs to be sitting behind a tri-folded piece of artwork explaining to me how many kobolds are about to attack me and my friends?

Because if so that's pretty cool.

What a neat, out of left-field compliment.