23 November 2017

BOOK REVIEW: What Does This Button Do? - An Autobiography by Bruce Dickinson

What Does This Button Do?: An AutobiographyWhat Does This Button Do? - An Autobiography by Bruce Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since I heard the soaring vocals in the chorus of Iron Maiden's iconic tune Run to the Hills as an impressionable kid in the 80's, Bruce Dickinson has been in my head. I've been eager to read his autobiography, right from when it was announced that one of the most legendary metal vocalists of all time was going to tell of his life and career in his own words.

Bruce is someone who I've always wanted to meet and share an ale and a yarn with, it always seemed to me as though he and I have a number of things in common. Bruce's story confirmed that, and as he explains the major events of his life I could see that we have a similar worldview in lots of ways. One thing that he has in truck loads, and that which I often lack, is confidence. By 'eck, this bloke has some confidence. This is evident from his career as the front man of Iron Maiden and also from his inspiring journey to becoming a commercial airline pilot. As a professional aircraft engineer of 20 years and currently also as a student pilot, I know how fraught with obstacles and trials the aviation industry is. Even so, this guy just walks up and says to himself "F@#k it, I'm gonna do that", and he does so, very successfully.

Now to the book itself. It's written by Bruce's own hand in a very entertaining and vibrant style that reflects his personality and adds a rich layer to the stories. He doesn't go into all that many things in much depth or detail, but when taken as a whole life-story, he does a reasonable job of squeezing a lot into the book. What is noticeably absent from the book is anything of any real substance about other people. There's no relationship details, other than professional, with anybody whether it be band mates or family members. Initially I found this rather disappointing because I was looking forward to learning a bit about Bruce the family man, for example, but there's nothing like this in there anywhere. I've since seen a couple of interviews with Bruce where he addresses the issue and explains why he didn't wish to reveal personal details about others. I can see his point and generally agree with his reasoning, which shows him to quite clearly be a very private person, and all of that stuff is none of my business anyway. That said, this autobiography does seem a little incomplete without at least some of these details.

He does spin some more detailed yarns about his flying exploits, which I found incredibly interesting. Again, I'm impressed with Bruce's confidence and tenacity as he tackles challenge after challenge. He's clearly very into what he does, whether it be flying any number of different aeroplanes, or crafting songs. In a word, inspirational. Toward the end of the book, there is one part of his life where Bruce does get quite candid, and that is the story of his battle with cancer. He opens up about his treatment and recovery enough for us to appreciate the depth of his struggle, and his stubborn grit shines through again as he just gets on with the job of kicking the big C into touch. Again, noticeably missing is where his family fitted into this picture.

In summary, this is a good autobiography about a very interesting person. I enjoyed it immensely and drew inspiration from so many aspects of Bruce's journey through life. Essentially it's a good autobiography recounting Bruce's professional life and career(s), but what would've made it a great autobiography would be more depth to his personal story. For what it is, though, it's pretty solid and well worth a read.

5/5 for concept
4/5 for delivery
3/5 for entertainment
= 4 out of 5

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04 October 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Bruce Dickinson: Flashing Metal with Maiden and Flying Solo by Joe Shooman

Bruce Dickinson: Flashing Metal with Maiden and Flying SoloBruce Dickinson: Flashing Metal with Maiden and Flying Solo by Joe Shooman
My rating: 4.7/5

I picked this up intending to read it as a stop-gap before Bruce's autobiography is released in a month or so, and I began it not expecting all that much, to be honest, based on some other reviews which I'd seen. But, it's really quite a good book and has some great insights and critiques of much of the music which Bruce has been involved with over the years. It's quite up to date (published 2016) and tells the story right up to the release of Iron Maiden's awesome
The Book of Souls double album and Bruce's much publicized cancer scare in which he, yet again, demonstrates his grit.

I've always been a very big fan of Bruce Dickinson, from first hearing him belt out Run to the Hills back in 1982 when I was a kid through until now where his unstoppable energy and enthusiasm has taken him to achieve some great things. And there seems to be no stopping him either. I guess that I feel that Bruce and I may be very similar, because his artistic and social sensibilities have always appealed to me. He is also very much involved in aviation which is the industry in which I also ply my trade.

The book itself is quite well written by Joe Shooman, and he weaves the story of Bruce's early life and his introduction to the London rock scene rather well given the sheer pace of events. I found the early history part particularly interesting because of my fascination with the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) era that was so hugely influential to rock music and spawned some of the best rock and metal acts to ever play a not. Many later and now contemporary bands really owe the depth of their sound to these British lads who busted out of the ghastly punk scene and forged something quite incredible.

As mentioned, I really liked Shooman's descriptions and critiques of Bruce's solo albums and some of Iron Maiden's albums as well. It all helped because the author reflected a lot of my own opinions of the music and made this a text that I could easily relate to in an academic sense. I was always eager to pick up reading from where I left off and the pace was good and moved along nicely. The chapters are arranged well, and they often end on a bit of a "cliffhanger", but flicking the page enables you to pick up again the next time you read quite seamlessly.

Overall this is a good book, not too long yet not lacking in substance or depth of information. A recommended read for anybody interested in Bruce Dickinson or Iron Maiden. I enjoyed reading it a lot.

5/5 for concept
4/5 for delivery
5/5 for entertainment
= 4.7 out of 5

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25 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

The Massacre of Mankind: Authorised Sequel to The War of the WorldsThe Massacre of Mankind: Authorised Sequel to The War of the Worlds by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 2.3/5

It has been 14 years since the Martians invaded England. The world has moved on, always watching the skies but content that we know how to defeat the Martian menace. Machinery looted from the abandoned capsules and war-machines has led to technological leaps forward. The Martians are vulnerable to earth germs. The Army is prepared.

So when the signs of launches on Mars are seen, there seems little reason to worry. Unless you listen to one man, Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells' book. He is sure that the Martians have learned, adapted, understood their defeat.

He is right.
Thrust into the chaos of a new invasion, a journalist - sister-in-law to Walter Jenkins - must survive, escape and report on the war.
The Massacre of Mankind has begun
***** *** *******
This review has a broad overview of the story, so it could contain some minor spoilers.
In this, we have my most anticipated book of 2017, an authorized sequel to a foundation work of science fiction and one that I'd been waiting impatiently for since it was first announced. Within minutes of the ebook file being loaded onto my Kindle I was into it with great gusto, but after a few chapters my level of enthusiasm had plummeted dramatically. I will say from the get-go that this book seems very well crafted in a technical sense, but Baxter's presentation makes me fearful that he may have made it largely inaccessible to a modern audience. Hopefully during the course of this review we can get to the bottom of why I feel this way.

The story idea is a great one, of course, in that the Martians invaders from the 1898 original novel The War of the Worlds come back to Earth to have another crack. This story begins in 1920 and is effectively an alternate history story with a sci-fi base. The book is stocked with plenty of characters from the original novel and the narrator of this book, Julie Elphinstone, is one of these.

The writer of The War of the Worlds, referred to within this book as "The Narrative", is named as a certain Walter Jenkins and it is his continuing obsession with the Martians and his predictions of their actions which drives this story forward. He commissions Julie to carry out a task for him to try to regain some control in the situation with the invaders. The military hijack her mission and Julie is thrust headlong toward the Martian stronghold.

Much has changed in Britain and Europe after what after the events of the first Martian War, World War One has been fought but the outcome and resulting political landscape are very different. Britain is ruled by a corrupt military government in cahoots with Germany, who now control most of Europe. Some technology has been gleaned from the remnants of the Martians and this has been pressed into service in the form of mechanized weapons and there is a whole industry trying to harness the power of the atom.

Along the way much is revealed of the Martian plans for their mission here on Earth. Also revealed are some other extraterrestrial species and these play various roles in the story. I must admit that this is an enjoyable element to the story that I didn't expect. Also enjoyable is the cool post-steampunk feel in places, like huge Zeppelins and massive armored land-ships. The Martians eventually land on other parts of our planet as well and expand their assault. For much of the book the story jumps between Julie's first-person account and various other third-person accounts from these other places.

The pace does pick up noticeably in the second half which is just as well because the first half is (I thought) annoyingly slow. Coupled with this, Baxter uses a language style which would be appropriate if it were written during the period in which is is set, but there is a large amount of time spent with needless descriptions of the scenes and the things in them. Maybe the author felt this old-school stuff necessary in order to achieve the desired period feel but it makes it really drag and I soon found it quite a chore to read. I can see a lot of people giving up on this part way through, which I nearly did a couple of times.

What kept me going was my desire to finish it, to see what happens at the end. Most of all, I really wanted to write a glowing review of this massively anticipated novel but, sadly, that isn't to be. If I'm really honest with you, I should've given up because I don't think that the conclusion of the story offered anything all that rewarding. It was okay in a thematic sense, but it wound down rather anticlimactically and left me feeling quite flat. The way is left open for continuation, there being a number of loose ends left dangling but, if there is, I don't think I will be leaping up to read it, not if it's anything like this book.

I'm certain that Mr. Baxter put a lot of hard work into this book but I don't think that he or the publisher got this one right at all. That is only my opinion, of course, but it's not often that I feel as disappointed with a book as I have with this one.

4/5 for concept
1/5 for delivery
2/5 for entertainment
= 2.3 out of 5

22 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) [Bobiverse #1] by Dennis E. Taylor

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse, #1)
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) [Bobiverse #1] by Dennis E. Taylor
My rating: 4.6/5

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it's a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he'll be switched off, and they'll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad - very mad.

***** *** *******

This is a fun read, a hard sci-fi story with a solid chunk of humor and cynicism that is a supremely enjoyable read. The writing style is excellent, flowing well and it works great within the realm of this story which is a multiple first-person account of self-replicating probes multiplying and exploring the galaxy. The style is similar to many other contemporary science fiction authors and it particularly reminded me of John Scalzi, a good thing because he is one of my favorite modern authors. Scalzi's sarcastic wit is something to behold and Dennis E. Taylor seems to be cut from the same cloth in the story-telling sense anyway. I certainly encourage any Scalzi fan to give this a try.


I liked the central character Bob right from the outset, so when he becomes the essence of the artificial intelligence which controls an interstellar exploration probe I was more than happy to go along for the ride. The landscape of Earth, both geological and political, has changed dramatically over the hundred or so years between Bob's death and his resurrection in a computer memory core, irreparably so and humanity is strongly motivated to find other options for survival. A number of groups and factions have the same idea of exploring space so Bob has his work cut out just to survive out in space let alone discover any inhabitable planets for humanity to relocate to.

As he goes, Bob is able to replicate himself to create additional probes as well as other more interesting hardware to aid his mission. It's cool to see each new version of Bob take on it's own personality, retaining much of their humanity along the way. I've not read anything to date that explores this post-physical existence in such a straight-forward and entertaining way. I know this is a reasonably common trope in science fiction, one that is very thought-provoking in the philosophical sense, but the way this book explores the idea is refreshing. It really is very nicely done. Also, there are plentiful references throughout to classic science fiction books and movies which will delight fans of the genre.

Out among the stars, our explorers discover lots of interesting things while searching for key resources which they require to resource their missions. Life is soon discovered and this is where the real highlight of the story is for me. Think Chariots of the Gods and ancient astronauts and you'll get the basic idea of what goes on. To say much more will possibly introduce spoilers to this review, but I will say that the human-derived artificial intelligence becomes quite involved with a native species, exerting quite a bit of influence. Another nicely executed aspect.

Back at Earth, things are underway to try and get the remains of humanity and other species safely on their way to new homes. But, as one can expect, the human race continually exhibits their less desirable traits and the AI's have their work cut out just to get people to agree on a plan. This brings me to another of the themes of the book (and a particular favorite of mine given my often general dislike of my own species) which is a commentary of humanity and those things that most intelligent people would agree that we must move beyond to achieve more of our potential. The book is full of cynical references to such things that any free thinker will probably relate to.

Overall, this is a well thought out and presented hard sci-fi story that I reckon any fan of such stuff will appreciate. It's part of an ongoing series (three books at present) that has been very well received by readers and, after reading this, it's easy to see why.

4/5 for concept
5/5 for delivery
5/5 for entertainment
= 4.6 out of 5

23 January 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Promise of the Child is a stunning feat of imagination set against an epic backdrop ranging from 14th-century Prague, to a lonely cove near the Mediterranean Sea, to the 147th-century Amaranthine Firmament. Toner has crafted an intelligent space opera filled with gripping action and an emotional scale that is wonderfully intimate, a smart and compelling debut that calls to mind the best of Kim Stanley Robinson or M. John Harrison.

Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.

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DISCLAIMER: I received my copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

When I was first shown this book, I was impressed with the level of interest and praise that it has received, and by some recognizable names in the industry too. This made me keen to delve into it myself. Even though it's classified as space opera, the synopsis sounded to me very much like what I call "science-fantasy", a universe where things appear more mystical and magical than technological and where hard sci-fi is quite scarce. The closest thing to this description that I've read would probably be Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, a universe that I enjoyed a lot.

Set thousands of years in the future, this story takes the idea that humanity has continued to evolve, and has also produced a number of sub-species. At the top of the heap are a section of humanity called the Amaranthine, a very long-lived group who have created a huge interstellar empire in which Earth (known as The Old World) is still central. The rest of the "human" species comes in the shape of the Prism, who have a number of forms, are more primitive than the Amaranthine.

I won't begin an analysis of the plot or the characters, partly because there are many other reviews that have done this, and also partly because it came as a bit of blur to me. I found myself skimming portions of the text for a considerable amount of the book. It's written with an elegant artistic style, and while I don't know much about the technicalities of the English language, I can recognize the skill of the author here. The only problem is that I'm not turned on by that sort of thing, I like it simpler, less "flowery" as it were. I'm technical-thinking and matter-of-fact which means that I found this book to be not all that entertaining. Intellectually stimulating for some I have no doubt, but I tired of the embellished prose.

However, what I do see, as many other readers also do, is a new author on the scene who will probably fit in nicely with the likes of Reynolds, Banks, Hamilton and others of the genre. I'm sure he'll be around for some time.

Overall, I'd call this book a technically skillful execution of a complex story, within a fantastic universe. It just lacks enough entertainment value for my tastes, which unfortunately meant that it didn't do it for me.

4/5 for concept
5/5 for delivery
2/5 for entertainment
= 3.7 out of 5

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18 January 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Alliance (The Evox Chronicles #1) by Chris G. Wright

The Alliance (The Evox Chronicles #1)The Alliance (The Evox Chronicles #1) by Chris G. Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Human extinction has been decided and the alien invasion shows no signs of abating. City ruins will be the only proof that Humans ever existed. For the survivors, hope dies along with the mounting casualties. Do the few remaining pockets of resistance stand a chance against the Milky Way's most dangerous civilization? The answer is in the stars.

To find salvation, the Humans must learn to coexist and collaborate with an ambiguous ally who has a plan to save Earth from a conflict that knows no boundaries. Their salvation is the Alliance.

But Humans were designed with flaws, and Ethan Alexander Colt and Donovan Ford are no different. Will they be able to see beyond their own aspirations and fight for the greater good? Or will they jeopardize it all? In possession of alien weapons of seemingly infinite energy, the survival of two species depends on them. One will need to make the ultimate sacrifice and carry out a plan that takes away everything he holds dear. The other must conquer his ghosts and embrace his destiny as a soldier.

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A story about human origins and destiny, painted upon a vast and wonderful canvas.

This is a big story, the first of a six-volume series that looks like it's going to be quite an epic. The author has combined many tried and true tropes of the genre creating a blend of space opera and sci-fi action adventure, with melodramatic conflict between opponents who have advanced abilities, weapons, and other technologies. There are battles and skirmishes in quantity and lots of explosions. Quite dynamic in theme, it starts as a dystopian drama, moving into human-alien first contact and growing into the large scale space opera that it really is.

Things kick off here on Earth, which has been invaded and overrun by hordes of alien raiders, who destroy anything and everything in their path. At first the invaders' motivations aren't clear and we soon learn that there is more than one extraterrestrial species taking an interest in Earth. It appears that there are things here that galactic factions greatly desire, devices that can give those who posses them an upper hand in their conflict. Underlying this is the mystery of the originators of the devices, and we catch a glimpse of them at the beginning in the Prologue. Somebody or something is manipulating events through these devices. The author draws a faint outline of the overarching story and gives clues to more detail as the story unfolds. I'm guessing that some incredible things are going to be revealed as the saga evolves.

Pockets of humans survive in communities which are fiercely defensive and insular, a typical post-apocalyptic scenario. It is from within these groups that we get our human protagonists, who are destined to become part of a grand plan to overcome the invaders. They will also hopefully aid in the restoration of a Galactic Alliance, once-powerful but now in disarray. What follows is a rapid progression of events. Mysterious forces cause the human race semi-willingly into a pivotal role, caught between evil forces bent on conquest and other benevolent species who will help them in return for service and allegiance to their Alliance. As the story gets into full swing, there are hints of conspiracy among the factions, subtle hints of another level to the drama.

I absolutely loved the mother ship! A massive city ship, in the form of an inverted pyramid over forty thousand feet in height. A technological marvel unlike anything mankind has seen before. That's what is shown hovering above the hill on the book cover. Things like this are one of the reasons why I love sci-fi, they fill me with a sense of wonder which leaves me in awe. This book is full of impressive techno stuff.

The book is written in an easy chronological style, but it gains complexity from the scenes jumping dramatically from one to another. I got a little lost at times and found myself having to pause and take stock of events at various points along the way. The speed of the story is the cause of this, but it wasn't difficult to catch back up again. The author keeps his foot on the pedal, and the prose and dialogue is quite raw which makes for an engaging read.

There is a large cast of characters with many different titles and roles, and the story is driven evenly by characters and events, and it's just as much about the action as the players themselves. I found the characters to be believable and their dialogue is suitably unpolished (but without unnecessary profanity) which made it easy for me to relate to them. They have reasonable depth and you learn enough about who they are, the key figures being examined to a moderate extent in this early stage of the saga.

In summary, this is an excellent addition to the massive array of indie science fiction books, one that thoroughly deserves every bit of praise it gets. I've been left breathless by the sheer scale of the story. I give it a solid 4.5 stars, only losing that last little half for slightly jumbled arrangement. I'll be watching this series and this author, he's a refreshing and exciting prospect.

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