The Three-Body Problem

I’ve been saving this book to read for ages because I knew, I just KNEW, it was going to be good. I have a soft spot for science fiction, but one thing that really bugs me about science fiction is how American it always is. For some reason, first contact with extra-terrestrials always seems to happen in America and, considering it’s a big wide world out there, I’ve always found it a bit hard to believe that only America has the technology, the wherewithal, the interest in making that first contact. So when I found out that a Chinese science fiction novel won the Hugo award, I knew that I would have to read this book.

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“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated into English by Ken Liu, is a science fiction novel that begins in China during the cultural revolution. It is the first in a series of three books called “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”. Ye Winjie, an astrophysics graduate, watches her father be beaten to death by Red Guards. After she is sent to Inner Mongolia to join a labour, an incident occurs that puts her life and future at risk. However, she is thrown a lifeline when she is given the opportunity to join a mysterious military communications centre. There’s only one catch: she will have to stay there the rest of the life. Decades later, a nanotechnology researcher called Wang Miao is asked to assist in the investigation of the deaths of several scientists. After experiencing some inexplicable disturbances in his vision, he decides to relax by playing a game he has seen others play: a virtual reality game called Three Body.

This book is the best science fiction novel I have read in a very long time. It is simply superb. If you enjoy science fiction, you’ll enjoy this – I promise you. Cixin Liu is a genius, the science in this book is fascinating, the writing is great (with plenty of helpful but unobtrusive footnotes from the translator) and I found myself whispering “Wow.” after every chapter I finished.

I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese fiction recently, and there are two themes that I almost always notice. One – the stories often centre in some way on the Cultural Revolution. Two – the writing is excellent. I think the only people who would not enjoy this book are people who are not frequent readers of the science fiction genre. Some may think that the characters aren’t interesting or developed enough, but personally I think that the author has kept the characters a little out of focus so that it’s easier for people to relate to them, and also so that the thrust of the story is front and centre.

This book was excellent. It’s up there with the top three books I’ve read this year. I can’t wait to read the rest in the series. I’ve already mailed it to the next person insisting they read it. It was unbelievably refreshing and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Soft on the Devil

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Soft on the Devil” by Robert Lampros is a Christian mystery story about a young man called Ian. Ian lives a simple life – he lives by himself in an apartment, he works in a local cafe and he goes to church regularly. However, Ian’s life is turned upside down when his neighbour Cindy goes missing and turns up at his door a week later asking for help. When her body is found the next night, Ian decides to do his own investigating which ultimately brings him face to face with demons past and present.

I was a little uncertain about reviewing this book, but I thought I’d try to have an open mind and give it a go. Lampros is a confident writer who creates a likeable everyman character in Ian. As the story progresses, you learn more about Ian’s difficult past and celebrate with him as he achieves small wins in his work and budding relationship.

This is a quick and easy read. I think I only had two issues with the story. First, despite being a crime novel, it was left largely unresolved at the end. Secondly, despite the Christian themes and the otherwise matter-of-fact tone of the book, ghosts and visions were used a couple of times as plot devices.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable and insightful story in a genre I wouldn’t ordinarily read.

 

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The Obelisk Gate

I have a bit of a habit of spacing out a series. I very rarely binge-read a series in one go and this one was no exception. If you haven’t started “The Broken Earth” series and you want to know what Hugo-winning fantasy is like, I’d go and start at the beginning with “The Fifth Season“. If you’ve read that one and you’re wondering whether you should continue on with the second book in the trilogy, step this way.

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“The Obelisk Gate” by N. K. Jemisin is the second book in “The Broken Earth” trilogy. The story picks up right where the last left off. Essun is an orogene, a “rogga” who can still the Earth and more with her powers. Trying to find her daughter Nassun who has been taken away by her father after he committed an unspeakable crime, Essun has found shelter in Castrima. In this underground crystalline community that, if not welcoming to roggas, is at the very least accepting, Essun begins to find a place. However the apocalyptic Season is upon them and survival is becoming more difficult to cling to. The comm is also populated with stone eaters, a mysterious race of people that Essun distrusts with the exception of Hoa. Her old mentor Alabaster is holed up, maimed, in the clinic and under the watchful eye of his stone eater guardian Antimony, Alabaster tries to teach Essun about the secrets of their broken earth. Meanwhile, Nassun’s father has taken her to a community beyond the reaches of the Season so she can “cure herself” of being a rogga.

Just typing that out, it’s clear that there is a lot going on in this book. Jemisin is a punchy writer, no doubt, but I did feel that the immense amount of world-building and establishing of magic systems and explaining of history took the front row in this book. The first book of the series had a very unique structure, incredibly intense relationships and unparalleled character-building. This book set most of that aside, with perhaps the exception of Nassun, in favour of what felt like setting the stage for the finale. I enjoyed it, absolutely, but I was craving the intensity of the first book and I didn’t quite feel like I got it. Jemisin has developed an incredibly interesting world and the premise of the book is absolutely fascinating to me. However, I did feel like a couple of the reveals in this book were a bit heavy-handed when compared to the subtlety of the first.

Was this as good as the first book? No, I don’t think so. Will I be reading the third book in the series? Without a doubt. Should it have won the Hugo this year? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

Lost the Plot – Episode 19

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50 Shades of Grey at the Koala Park Laundromat Street Library
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20 years of passion for Australian literacy
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Lost the Plot – Episode 8
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Classrooms in the Clouds
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On Doubt

About a year ago, my friend suggested that I check out a podcast called “Chat 10 Looks 3“. It’s a conversational show with media heavyweights and real life BFFs Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and I quickly became hooked. The fanbase of the show, who call themselves Chatters, have swelled in numbers and Crabb and Sales have started doing special live events around the country. My friend wangled me a ticket to one such event in Sydney and we drove up from Canberra to see the pair speak a few weeks ago. Both Sales and Crabb are published authors, and they had a number of books for sale (theirs and books by their own favourite authors) after the show. I bought one book by Sales, and one by Crabb, then lined up to get mine signed. Sales’ book is very small and very short, so it didn’t take long for me at all to get to reading it.

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Disclaimer: I would never actually throw a book in the bin (I would either donate it or, at the very least, recycle it). Leigh Sales, however, has no sentimentality or qualms about getting rid of books once read and Annabel Crabb has taken to inscribing gift books to Sales with her personal address and mobile number just to make sure she doesn’t ditch them!

“On Doubt” by Leigh Sales is a short non-fiction personal essay about Sales’ observations on truth in politics and media as an Australian journalist. Originally published in 2009, this 2017 reprint includes a postscript about changes in media and politics in the past 8 years.

It is a quick read, and this is going to be a quick review because really there’s no excuse not to read this book yourself. It cost me $12.99 and you can buy the eBook version even cheaper. Sales investigates politicians who frequently make decisions based on gut feelings and instincts and the stigma and perception of weakness that is associated with those who doubt or are uncertain. For example, Victorian Premiere Daniel Andrews’ public admission that he changed his opinion about euthanasia was headline news because it is so unusual.

Opinions are increasingly being substituted for facts and the although the rise of the internet was expected to mean more information, it has in fact meant more platforms for people to voice mere opinions without being challenged. This book champions the courage it takes to tell the truth and the courage it takes for politicians and media magnates to admit when they are wrong, have made mistakes or have changed their mind. Sales has a clean, honest and matter-of-fact style of writing and makes her points both eloquently and succinctly.

In a world poisoned by fake news, alternative facts and baseless mantras like “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, this book is the antidote we all desperately need right now.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I bought a copy of this book ages ago in the Penguin Australian Classics edition which of course have gorgeous tinted edges and are in beautiful hardcover. This one is particularly whimsical. I’ve always meant to read this book because it is such a well-known Australian story, but I never managed to get around to it until I was invited to an event at the National Library of Australia celebrating 50 years since its publication. Finally, I decided to give this book a go.

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“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay is a novel that’s part historical, part mystery and part Gothic. The story is about a fictional boarding school for girls called Appleyard College in the Mount Macedon region of central Victoria. On Valentines Day in the year 1900, a group of girls go on a picnic to the famous Hanging Rock formation. After a lazy afternoon, four of the girls decide to go for a walk just before it is time to go home. However, when only one of the girls returns in hysterics and it is then discovered that one of the teachers is also missing, a search for the four missing women begins. The incident and the ensuing mystery has a ripple effect on the school, the town and ultimately the reader.

This story is definitely one that has ingrained itself in the Australian psyche and without a doubt has become a cultural phenomenon over the last 50 years. Lindsay has a real gift for capturing the unique beauty of the Australian bush and for maintaining and uncomfortable but irresistible sense of tension throughout the book. It has been 50 years and people are still talking about what happened to those girls. There is a “secret” final chapter that was axed from the book and I truly, truly advise that you avoid it. It adds absolutely nothing to the story.

In my write up of the National Library event, I talk a bit about arguably the biggest flaw in this book which is the complete absence of any kind of Aboriginal recognition. This book was written in the 1960s, 5 years after Aboriginal people were given the right to vote and in the same year as the 1967 Referendum. However, similarly to “The Nargun and the Stars“, it alludes to an ancient historical connectedness with the land without directly acknowledging the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrrung people who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years before being dispossessed of their land.  Perhaps at odds with the subject-matter of a story so concerned with femininity, Hanging Rock was in fact originally a sacred site for male initiation.

Ultimately though, this is a fascinating book that covers a wide range of themes including female sexuality, schooling, class, time and the harsh Australian landscape. It is an engrossing read that 50 years on shines a light on the Missing White Woman Syndrome and plays on the public’s sordid fascination with unsolved crimes.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Penguin Australian Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other

I received a copy of this book from the author.

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“A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other” by Ralph Webster is a biography/autobiography about his father Jerry Webster, originally named Gerhard Wobser. The book is divided into two parts: Jerry’s recollections about the rise of Nazis during his childhood in what was then East Prussia, and his son Ralph’s observations about Jerry at the end of his life. Jerry was born in what is now Poland in 1922 to a reasonably well-to-do family. He had three much older sisters and was the treasured son of aging parents who at times felt isolated from his siblings due to the age difference. As anti-Jewish sentiment grows in the region, the Wobsers, who are all baptised Lutherans, find themselves targeted for a heritage mostly forgotten.

This book was written after Webster’s travels through Europe, witnessing first-hand the “refugee crisis“. Although I have been reading quite a few stories about the children of Holocaust survivors this year, one story that I did not know much about was the story of those who tried to leave early. Although in the early days of Nazi Germany, many Jews were permitted and even encouraged to leave, lots of countries (including Australia) were reluctant to take them. With dwindling resources due to increasingly discriminatory laws, the Wobser family had to make do and send Jerry unaccompanied to England and eventually flee to China. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the reluctance of countries to take on refugees that took place then and is taking place now.

This story is written clearly with great detail, and I think captures the how slowly rights can be eroded perfectly. I liked the balance of past and present, and I think that Ralph’s own insights about his father worked well to provide a good sense of ending to a long life that had begun just before World War II. The only thing that is a bit difficult with this book is some of the earlier chapters about Jerry’s upbringing are a little repetitive, and he explains his family’s situation and structure several times over. While this helps to reiterate their situation in the beginning, it did slow the progress of the story at times.

A well-researched and well-considered book, this story is very relevant to our society today and shows that lessons can and should always be learnt from the past.

 

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