Pandemic Page-turners: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Sci-Fi? Aliens? First Contact? Check, check and check.

Axiom’s End is the first book in a new series called ‘Noumena’ by Lindsay Ellis. The second book ‘Truth of the Divine’ is due October this year, so now is the perfect time to tuck into Axiom’s End and join me being hyped.

I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi and have been since I was a kid. So any book that purports to be about Aliens and first contact are irresistible to me, regardless of execution. Name it and I’ve probably read it, the good and the bad. So given my preponderance of Sci-Fi books what did I think about Axiom’s End?

I loved it.

This book scratched a lot of itches. I realised that I haven’t read a really gratifying book about Alien life in a long time. There are a lot of great ideas in this corner of the genre and Lindsay Ellis explores some of the most fascinating ones.

First is the concept of Aliens. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise the idea of Aliens. It’s in our nature to do it. To visualise another intelligence, that could very well be unknowable, it is reasonable to assume that we would apportion these existences familiar anatomical landmarks. But in reality intelligent life out there could be so unfamiliar and unknowable to us that we wouldn’t know it if we saw it. I love that mystery. It is something that is utterly out of our comfort zone and experience. I think the book addresses this concept while also moving along a narrative vector that abides it. The concept of Aliens is, well, Alien.

One of my favourite ideas from the book came about from a discussion between two characters, that I won’t spoil, but it concerns the concept of the ‘Great Filter’. This is in relation to the Fermi Paradox, named after Physicist Enrico Fermi. I won’t go too deeply into it, but the gist of it is this: Given the enormity of space, the billions of potential of stars and planets that could theoretically support life in our galaxy, why have we not already encountered intelligent species beyond our own? The contrasting lack of evidence of other intelligences lead to the argument that there is a qualifying process that a species must pass through before extending beyond their star – a great filter for civilisation. It begs the question: when is this obstacle encountered, and when found, what is required to pass it?

This is heady stuff and I love that the book delves into these concepts.

Amongst these broad themes is the main character Cora Sabino and her family. The book is their story amidst tidal undercurrents of global change. Given how significant the events in the book, focusing on a family was an incredibly clever way to ground the story and make it relatable, while also exploring the deeper implications of Alien life and what that might do to our civilisation and our view of the Universe.

Through Cora we determine how prepared we are for the appearance of Alien life while also reconciling how we might go about quantifying it and understanding it. We have the contrasting needs of Cora’s granular concerns regarding her family and their wellbeing and her own safety and the overarching security of state and the governments mandate to protect and insulate the people in the face of something that nobody really understands.

Cora’s struggle between the immovable forces of government, the unknowable and unfathomable depths of Alien life and her own estranged whistleblowing father make for a dynamic and multifaceted conflict that explores the primary questions surrounding the idea of Alien life such as disclosure and freedom of information versus the need for security, preparation and the public’s ability to deal with this information.

And beyond all of this is the actual process of communicating and even understanding an Alien intelligence.

I’m inclined to keep talking about it but this post is more to nudge people toward reading the book, and not to break it down and spoil things. It’s better this way.

The more books we have on this topic the better and Lindsay Ellis have given us a great one. I’m looking forward to the next.

Pandemic Page-turners – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

If I could highlight one positive about living through a pandemic it’s that I’ve been able to catch up on some reading. I imagine that I’m not alone. I’m an existence perfectly attuned for lockdowns and isolation. Providing I have books.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to dust off the blog to write about some of the good stuff that I’ve been reading lately. If you’re stuck for things to read I hope this helps.

I’ve read two books by Sayaka Murata so far and Convenience Store Woman was my gateway. So it’ll be the first one I write about.

Sayaka Murata is a quirky author. I’ve not read anything quite like her books. Her characters are odd, they are different and they stand out. They have problems with society and they have a point.

One of the many interesting things about Convenience Store Woman is how relatable some of her grievances with society are. She is an artist when it comes to taking banal moments and twisting them to produce something dark and surreal. This holds true for her sophomore effort ‘Earthlings’ too, but Convenience Store Woman is where she mastered it.

Murata delves into conformity and socially normative behaviour, along with sexual and gender politics. She muses upon the moulds that adults are expected to fit. She questions them in ways that often render them absurd and confining. They are presented as a force that is exerted. There is a Japanese saying that aptly sums up the notion here – ‘the nail that sticks up, gets hammered down’. When a point is to be made about being different this saying will often be applied. Where someone is different or unusual, there will be resistance to it. This holds true for people anywhere. This book is a case of the nail resisting the hammer.

In the eponymous Convenience Store Woman Keiko Furukura’s case, the expectation as a woman in her thirties is to find a husband, leave her part time job and have children. This quiet and insidious pressure worms its way through Keiko’s story. Murata does a great job inverting things so that the ‘normal’ people’s interest in her life becomes grotesque and their prurient curiosity grates against Keiko’s utter lack of interest.

While weathering this pressure Keiko reflects on the refuge she found in working for a convenience store. This is the meat of the novel. The world inside the store makes sense to her. There is order. There are clear instructions on what she must do. She models her behaviour after the corporate training for employees when dealing with customers. She selectively mimics the behaviour and speech patterns of co-workers. This is how she navigates social situations that baffle her. She finds a sense of belonging after spending her early years adrift in a sea of social confusion. She is a part of the convenience store machine, and it soothes her.

She has learned through her family that to be herself would mean upsetting and confusing them, in the same way that their lives confuse her. She has a painfully pragmatic attitude – she understands herself just as she understands that the people around her do not.

The book charts Keiko’s personal revelations and growth while navigating the burdens of other people’s expectations. It is an entertaining ride. The book is a rallying cry for people that wish to live their lives on their own terms.

Convenience Store Woman is excellent debut. It is dark, funny, ironic and charming. It has a knack to get you thinking about how you relate to other people and why. Everybody should reflect on that sometimes.

Ten Books to Combat an Existential Crisis

Does existence terrify you? Does life seems dark and horrifying? Have you lost your faith in people?

Are you looking for a glimmer of hope to grasp onto?

Maybe you just want a few incredible and life affirming books to read. That’s cool too.

I hope that this list will aid with any and all of these states. I present to you my list of books for your mental bomb shelter. These are the books that you crack open during times of upheaval. They are funny, sad, confronting, and most importantly, hopeful. They are a valuable resource in this day and age, worth their weight in gold.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657The story of Scout, Jem and Atticus is timeless. Harper Lee wrote this book with enormous empathy. The book deals with tumultuous issues such as gender, race, justice, and rape. The book is eternally relevant, and the moral heroism of Atticus Finch, and the innocent optimism of Scout, is still positive and vital.

This is a book filled with hope, compassion and courage. Read this book to remind yourself that there are, and have always been, good people who will do the right thing, the good thing, in the face of ignorance and hate.

  1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

28921Stevens is a butler. The book is a meditation on his life and choices. It deals with shifting relationships, decisions made, and the loss of opportunities. The novel weaves through Stevens’ life, through past and present. I was hugely sympathetic to this story when I read it. Stevens is such a lonely character. But he is also a man of conviction, pride and professionalism.

The novel considers things like love, duty and loyalty, in addition to the influence of time on perspective and thought. It is about a man taking stock of his life, and considering what could have been but also what is. It is sad, but it is also hopeful and genuine.

  1. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

17910048The Goblin Emperor is almost entirely unique in the fantasy genre. The book defines itself by its warmth. The book addresses social issues such as class and race but does so through the unique lens of Maia, the main character.

Maia is a son of the Emperor of the Elflands, but he happens to be of mixed Elven and Goblin heritage. This renders Maia immediately as an outsider in the court, but the true difference between Maia and the denizens there is without a doubt his warmth, sympathy and empathy. Maia is simply and genuinely good.

Maia lives in isolation until the sudden death of his father the Emperor, and his elder siblings, leaves him at the head of the line of succession to the throne. The book follows Maia’s descent into the dark waters of political intrigue with all of the callously ambitious aristocracy one might expect in such a court. Maia, though, is immovable in his goodness, and he attempts to govern as such. This is a book of hope. It is emotive and positive and a breath of fresh kind-hearted air.

  1. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

22544764Like the Goblin Emperor, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a unique and hopeful addition to the fantasy genre. The book begins in a small village with the main character Agnieszka being unexpectedly plucked from her home, and it slowly expands until the fate of the kingdom is at stake.

Agnieszka and the enigmatic wizard ‘Dragon’ are the central players of the book. Agnieszka is a hugely admirable, entertaining and grounded protagonist. She is clever, independent, brave, adventurous and empathetic. There is an effortlessly organic quality to her that can only be due to Naomi Novik’s talent as an author.

They face significant threats, conflict, and danger, however Uprooted distinguishes itself by not having a central antagonist. There is evil, and there are evil characters, but the book is more about motivations and consequences instead of forces in direct opposition. It’s a great story, full of growth and potential.

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

19063The Book Thief is set in Germany during the rise of fascism and the supremacy of Nazism, and it is utterly heartbreaking. It is horrifying, sad and filled with loss, but also with kindness and hope; the characters inspire it, and the people provide it. This terrible backdrop only accentuates how precious an act of kindness can be.

The book is narrated by Death, who observes the best and the worst of human potential during this time, all the while following the life of Liesel, our little book thief, with a fascination that appears to be unusual.

The characters are what makes this book what it is. They are flawed, frustrating, and stubborn. They are also curious, kind, and ultimately good. The German perspective is unique and powerful. It’s all too common to explore WWII narratives through the lens of the Allies, remotely, but it’s incredibly confronting to sink into a society that felt the horror of Nazism first, and the keenest.

The people in these pages are memorable and it celebrates the good in us. It is the sort of book that will touch even the most cynical heart, and it will restore a measure of faith in humanity, if that is waning. This book explores the good in people that persists even in the crucible of horror and misery that was Nazi Germany. Harrowing, tragic and disturbing, The Book Thief shows what can be achieved by small and simple good deeds, and the hope that can spring from it.

  1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

2552On the Road, to me (and many others) is about the search for meaning in life. It is the search for a purpose. It is a bouncing, breathless, and untethered exploration of the ‘beat’ subculture that is both fictional and semi-biographical. It is packed with references and allusions to people in Kerouac’s circles, and it is what I instantly think of whenever someone mentions him.

For me, it’s Kerouac’s defining work. It’s sometimes lonely and isolated, sometimes crowded and feverish. It is a book of people seeking a place to belong in a world that is shifting and changing. It is reckless, fun, and energetic. It is also oddly sad.

The excitement in Kerouac’s search throughout the novel for meaning is a vital experience. It’s a book that captures a certain desperation to step outside of social norms and embrace something new, a desire to forge a new path.

  1. Catch 22 by Joeseph Hellar

168668My overwhelming theme so far has been that of hope and this book, especially toward the end, can be bereft of it. I think that the overall treatment of war here is relevant, as is the relentlessly cold nature of bureaucracy. These things (among many others) make this an important book.

Another reason why I’m adding it here, though, is the utter irrationality and irreverence. This book is as hilarious as it is tragic, but I honestly think that despite the horror, the loss, and the devastation therein, this book is a positive one. Against all odds, against a war machine that appears intent on grinding every last character down to nothing, hope shines through the cracks in the dark.

Yossarian is a hilarious and tragic figure. He is defiant, rebellious and understandably critical of the war and their place in it. He also continues to do his duty despite the dehumanising calculation of their missions, and the likelihood that he and his brothers in arms will die. There is a certainty of death that clashes with the humour, and this contrast sharpens both aspects. The book has a broad cast of characters and they are all doing what they can to cope in the red haze of war and the very real evidence of their fragile mortality.

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

18038911Neil Gaiman is one of the best writers living today. Anything he writes is something that I strongly suggest you read, but in the theme of this list, I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the best fit.

This book is sweet, nostalgic, and scary, and captures so well the magic of childhood. This is a book about the innocence of youth and the loss that occurs during the transition to adolescence and adulthood. It carefully reinforces the idea that we will always be who we were when we were small no matter how old we get. A little bit of the magic will always be there glimmering inside.

The book flows with the vivid imagination of Neil Gaiman, capturing the wonder of a child that just so happens to find himself in the centre of an effort that will save the world from an unforseen and unanticipated danger.

You could describe this as a fantasy, and it certainly deals with themes common to the fantasy genre, but that feels insufficient to contain it. It is steeped in the recollections of childhood. There is a quality to it that is similar to a lucid daydream. The book is sufficiently rooted in reality to be genuine, but gilded around the edges with the magic found in folk and fairy-tales.

The book is spooky, sad, and unsettling. It is also hopeful, warm, courageous and good. It’s the sort of book that will transport you back to your childhood, when the world seemed so much more magical, grand, and full of unbelievable potential. Where you might walk into the woods one day and simply stroll into another world.

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

818108Norwegian Wood is the first of two Murakami books on this list because I am unable to pick one, and all of his books are perfect for a list like this. It really could have been ten Murakami novels on here and I’d have been satisfied. Murakami taps into something with his writing. It is something elemental that resonates with me, consistently, on a level that very few other writers have.

The story of Norwegian Wood follows the recollection of Toru Watanabe, who at the start of the book is a middle-aged man. After he hears Norwegian Wood by the Beatles play, his memories transport him back into the turbulence of his days as a student in the 1960s.

We observe his listlessness, his boredom, his loves and his losses. There is an aching nostalgia to the story that will be familiar to anybody who has left friendships and relationships behind, to anybody that has lost someone that they love.

Tender, tragic, and isolated, this book simmers with the emotion of a young man who is adrift and experiencing the uniquely keen emotion of a young adult. It is heartfelt, emotional, tempestuous, and incredibly relatable. If you’re going through a dark period, if you feel lost or rudderless, if you’ve had your heart broken, read this book.

We are creatures of memory, and this book will help in embracing that. For all the pain that memories and reflection can elicit, there is a pervading sweetness and nostalgia to it all. It makes us what we are. Murakami champions the value of memory. He suggests that a life lived is the summation of memories and experiences that range from the tragically sad, to the deliriously happy.

70933The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle continues Murakami’s pervading theme of men missing Women. Toru Okada, the protagonist, who is presently unemployed, is looking for his missing cat, and what follows is a surreal descent into a strange and inexplicable labyrinthine underworld of missing people, missing cats, eccentrics, clairvoyants, sex, murderers, and wells, where the lines of reality begin to blur.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to me, is a recovery book. It’s the sort of book you pull out and re-read as a coping mechanism. A good friend of mine refers to it as a ‘break-up’ book. And it really is. If you need an anchor, if you need something stable to grasp upon when you are uncertain or feeling lost, Murakami is a lighthouse that allows you to navigate the rocky shores. Toru Okada’s descent into this strange story, and his search for what he has lost, is isolated, compellingly strange, and sincerely affecting. 

There is slow, deliberate and meticulous quality to Murakami’s writing. His books are tethered in reality, but he opens the door to the strange and the surreal. This is especially so in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In Murakami’s stories he shows us that everyday, little by little, our experiences shape and form us into a new version of ourselves, each slightly different to the last. Murakami takes reality, the chemistry of common life, and he infuses it with mystery and magic. I can think of no other writer who so instils such a profound sense of growth, hope and recovery.

Spotlight: Raven’s Shadow Trilogy by Anthony Ryan – THIS IS A TRILOGY OF BADASSES!

17693064The Raven’s Shadow trilogy is a fantasy series by Anthony Ryan. The first book is Blood Song (first published in 2011), followed by Tower Lord (2014) and Queen of Fire (2015). The books chronicle the life of Vaelin Al Sorna, the son of the King’s famed and feared Battle Lord, after he is severed from his family and deposited into the Sixth Order. A religious sect dedicated to transforming children into elite and deadly warriors. They are bound to the tenants of their faith, and famed for their prowess.

The brothers of the Sixth Order are wherever the fighting is the hottest and wherever the deadliest foes threaten the realm. They are trained to show up, outclass, and annihilate foes – then mic-drop on the way out. This series delivers.

Blood Song is the academy book of the series. The formative years. One of the best of its kind. Blood Song delves into the training of Vaelin and his peers as they are moulded into men who will be the vanguard in combat and conflict throughout the realm. It is a coming of age story, and it is a vital book. It forms the foundation, the relationships, and the personalities that prop up and propel the story over the course of the trilogy.

It is amazing. I loved the trilogy, but Blood Song is something special. I’m going to keep this a spoiler free review, as usual, so Blood Song (Book One) will be the book I focus on here. So, what does the synopsis say? Read More »

Blog: Perfect protagonists – and their critics

darksoulsI want to talk about something that really baffles me in the book blogging/review community and it is this: the need people have to take a story with a precocious or brilliant main character and slam them as a “mary-sue” or “gary-stu”. The implicit criticism being that they are so perfect that they are annoying. As soon as a ‘critic’ introduces this label it appears to be open season on the legitimacy of both the character and the story. It is dismissive, cheap and painfully arrogant.Read More »

You must read SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson: Here’s why

sevenevesNeal Stephenson is a challenging and erudite author. He is the writer responsible for Snow Crash, one of my favourite books, along with classics like The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. Lauded, celebrated and awarded – Neal Stephenson has many laurels. When SEVENEVES hit shelves around the world Barack Obama, then POTUS and leader of the free world, earmarked it for his summer reading. When the POTUS dedicates time to kicking back and reading a Sci-Fi novel, you know that it isn’t an ordinary book.

Read More »

Author Spotlight: Glen Cook and his Black Company

black-companyI’ve read a lot of fantasy. It is my favourite genre. This will be no surprise to anyone. It is also a genre that is filled with some pretty terrible books: formulaic, bland and boring. I love it, though, because it is a treasure trove of rich and rewarding stories. You simply need to sort the good from the bad. Some of the very best fantasy writers spurn the formula and create something new. I’m going to talk about one such author today. Glen Cook, and his Chronicles of the Black Company.Read More »

You must read Riyria Revelations

Riyria Revelations is a fantasy trilogy by Michael J. Sullivan. Yes I am reviewing an entire trilogy. The books that comprise the series are Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron and they are incredible. I picked up on a recommendation for this series after really finishing The Shadow of What Was Lost. Thanks to that book I was on a fantasy high and wow am I glad I found mention of Theft of Swords. I read it, bought the next two, and now here we are.Read More »

You must read The Shadow of What Was Lost

The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington is a cracking book. The emergence of a new series of this calibre is incredibly exciting. James Islington is an Australian author, which as an Australian myself, makes me immensely proud. There are precious few Australian voices in the international pool of epic fantasy, but Islington is proof that there are incredible fantasy writers out there awaiting discovery. It’s refreshing. Islington is a pioneer. I wish him every success.Read More »

You must read Sleeping Giants

sleeping-giantsSleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel is the first book in a series that he has dubbed The Themis Files. I found this one entirely by chance while browsing a bookstore, and after reading the blurb I knew I had to experience it. At this stage it is looking to be at least a trilogy, with Sylvain Neuvel implying that there could be more. Sounds great to me. The sequel, Waking Gods, is due for release in April this year. So this is the perfect time to jump in and grab this one. The wait will be far less agonising for you.

Like glimpses of bafflingly advanced alien technology? Giant robots? Ambitious scientists? Enjoy enigmatic G-men with complex agendas and suspiciously vast resources? This book delivers.Read More »