Dissecting Easter Eggs

Books Over Easter, Audible UK ran a “find the Easter Egg” game on their website as a way to get their customers to give some new books a try. It wasn’t a very complicated game. All Audible did was to pepper the various pages of the website with egg icons, each corresponding to the free download of the first chapter of a newly released book. Audible users were tasked with hunting them all down, spurred on by the prospect that anyone collecting the complete set would have their name entered into a draw to win a Kindle Fire or somesuch. Not very imaginative, but it worked with me because I must have found the vast majority, if maybe not every last one.

It really wasn’t the prospect of a Kindle Fire which motivated me, I can promise you. My reasoning was that I have tried some Audible free first chapters in the past and came across one or two which were more than promising, so I was tempted by the real possibility of discovering some books I would enjoy reading and might not otherwise have thought to try.

I found 19 eggs in this particular clutch, covering a variety of genres. And I’ve decided to review the lot. All of them, in this very post. Don’t panic – my reviews only occasionally run to a complete sentence. And bear in mind that I have only read (listened to) the first chapter in each case, although that does range from about 2 hours down to a mere 43 seconds! Typically, the free first chapters are from 10 to 20 minutes in duration.

So let’s get cracking with those eggs:

  • Downhill All the Way by Edward Enfield: A comedy book about cycling around France. Very English humour, wittily and imaginatively written. Going on the wishlist.
  • Infinite Sky by C.J. Flood: Sentimental nonsense. I didn’t finish the first chapter, free or not.
  • The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz: The interesting real life but anonymised cases of a psychoanalyst. Threatens to be fascinating if a bit grim. I’ll ponder on this one.
  • The Horologicon by Mark Forsyth: Attempts to be The Meaning of Liff applied to real old and/or obscure words. I hoped it might shed some real light on the origin and etymology of the words in our language and how English had developed from Anglo-Saxon days. Instead it was a complete a let-down. Not funny, just fell flat.
  • Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes: Police procedural based on the activities of a gory serial killer. Well written and engaging. Not the sort of thing I normally read but enough promise to survive through to the “maybe” pile.
  • Irresistible Persuasion by Geoff Burch: A self-help business book, majoring on the importance of proper goal setting. Entertaining and well written but not actually likely to teach me anything I didn’t know.
  • A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485 by Nicholas Vincent: This is the book with the 2 hour first chapter, so probably not that brief. It was all scene-setting, explaining why 11th century Britain was not as unified a kingdom as may have been claimed. Started off okay but I gave up when the focus turned to farming methods and the road system.
  • The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks: Zombies sell. No idea why – they do nothing for me at all. I gave it a couple of minutes, that was plenty. Does not count as credible SF or Fantasy.
  • Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach: Just not my thing.
  • Doughnut by Tom Holt: This was the totally daft story about the nuclear physicist who caused an accident that killed lots of people, lost his job and now works in an abbatoir, oh .. and he has an invisible arm. This is patently trying to appeal to Hitchhiker’s Guide fans, but is different enough and quite engaging. Will read it. Does not count as SF.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey. Now this is SF. And quite promising: post-apocalyptic on some unknown planet, where the humans shelter in an underground silo and go out on the surface to die when they’ve had enough of it. I didn’t know it at the time I read the free chapter, but Howey is a “poster child” successful self-published author. A day or two later, Wool was mentioned on the Sword & Laser show because it has been recognised by the mainstream hence, presumably, why it has been picked up by Audible. The Wool Omnibus is the next S&L book-pick but I’ve had enough of trying to keep up with Tom and Veronica for a bit so will leave Wool, at least for now.
  • The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan: This is a fast-paced Egyptological mystery romp for kids, and it would seem a very good one. I am tempted to read it. This despite my disdain for Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. He made money by leveraging the Harry Potter popularity wave, creating  an unashamed rip-off.
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams: Reddit.
  • The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence: Mildly zany young adult story. From the off it creates a mysterious situation, intended to suck the reader in. Well, I dunno. Maybe.
  • The Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine: Another smug Michael Caine autobiography. Naaaaah.
  • Maggot Moon by Sally Garner: This is the one where you only get 43 seconds of first chapter. Maybe it’s wonderful, but there’s not much to go on. Maybe if the author had known about the first free chapter idea she might have started with a slightly longer one.
  • The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman: Another self-help book, this time attempting to extol the benefits of not trying to be positive minded or, for that matter, happy. Attempt at attention by differentiation. Oh, come on! No, no and thrice no!
  • The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan: I skipped this, but only because I had already resolved to start with Canavan’s Black Magician series.
  • The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine: Not for me, sorry.

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The oddness explained

Books A couple of posts ago, I mentioned my surprise and amazement on discovering that I had managed to pick Excession, the fourth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, as my new read on Audible in all ignorance of the fact that it had only been released on that medium a mere 20 days earlier. I had chosen the book entirely coincidentally; it was only after I had downloaded it that I noticed Audible were actively promoting it on their website.

It also seemed odd that Excession, which was first published as a print book in 1996, would have taken so long to come out on Audible, particularly bearing in mind that later books in the same series had been available on Audible for years. It was the hoo-ha around the Audible release of Matter, the seventh book in the series, which drew the Culture books to my attention in the first place.

It turns out that Matter was the first Culture book to come out on Audible, on 15 January 2008, I believe at the same time as the launch of the print book. What I imagine happened is that Audible saw the general excitement around the release of Matter as an opportunity to kick off sales of Culture audiobooks with a bit of a bang. I saw the adverts, was intrigued and bought the audiobook on 31 January of that year.

The second Culture book to come out on Audible was the eighth in the series, Surface Detail, on 7 October 2010, again presumably to coincide with the print release. I haven’t read that one yet – having rather liked Matter I decided I would go back to the start of the series with Consider Phlebas which was first published in print in 1987. Although I hadn’t realised at the time, Audible were thinking along similar lines. They clearly decided they should be producing Audible versions of past Culture books, releasing the audiobook of Consider Phlebas on 5 November 2010. It made no difference to me because I read it as an eBook, principally because at the time I was ploughing through the Wheel of Time back catalogue sequentially on Audible.

I later decided I would go on to the second Culture book, The Player of Games, which was first published in print in 1988, and bought the Audible version on 30 January 2012. It had been available in audio form since 2 December 2010, less than a month after Consider Phlebas, so Audible were clearly then making an effort to clear the backlog.

The third Culture book is Use of Weapons, first out in print in 1990. I bought that on Audible on 5 June 2012. The Audible version had only come out on 5 April 2012, that is just 2 months earlier, but that fact had not registered with me at all. You can now see the pattern: my discovery of the Culture books via Audible (who started in the middle of the series for opportunistic reasons) has been followed by both Audible and myself proceeding to work through the series from the beginning, broadly in synchronisation.

The gap between the Audible releases of Use of Weapons and Excession probably has a lot to do with the fact that the ninth Culture book, The Hydrogen Sonata, came out in both audio and print versions on 4 October 2012.

So my reading of the series in the proper order is now very closely in step with the corresponding Audible releases. That means I will be waiting on Audible for the fifth book, Inversions, probably for some months. I could get it as an eBook, but I enjoy the Peter Kenny narration and will just have to be patient. There are other items on my wish list to keep me going. 

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Utterly shocked …

Books … to hear the awful news about Iain Banks.

It would have been terrible news at any time but I think maybe worse because I am right in the middle of, and very much enjoying, one of his books so had Iain Banks and my thoughts about his writing very much at front of mind.

So far, I have found Excession, the fourth Culture book, the most fun to read although I still have a few to get to. Apparently, a lot of people like it because of the insight into the Culture AI Minds and the amusing conversations between them. That is definitely an enjoyable aspect to the book, but I have simply found it more immediately engaging than the others. I am around a third of the way through it now.

I admire Iain’s courage and graciousness, as well as his extraordinary inventiveness and imagination as a writer. The announcement of his condition on his website is unfortunately, but understandably, getting too many hits to reach at the moment. It is though reproduced    in full on the BBC news website.

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How very odd …

Books It is unusual for me to be at a loss to decide what to read next on Audible. I usually have a host of books I am itching to read, but when I recently finished Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, I had the odd experience of not being sure what I would go on to next.

Not straight onto the third book in the Hunger Games series, much as I enjoyed Catching Fire. I like to mix things up a bit, particularly after the time spent in the Wheel of Time universe in the run up to and reading of the final book, A Memory of Light. Of course, there is no new WoT book to go on to and it is far too soon for a re-read.

I looked through my Audible wish-list but nothing grabbed me, although I toyed with the idea of trying the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I looked back through my Evernote record of the books I read on Audible and Kindle, but that did not really go back far enough. Another option was the next Sword & Laser book-pick, Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, but that was, to my amazement, not available on Audible! Mind you, I am still struggling with the last S & L pick, Downbelow Station by Caroline Cherry, which I am reading on Kindle and battling to get up to half way through.

Excession

I then turned to my Audible library in search of inspiration from books I’ve read in the past. Then it was suddenly obvious. Another Culture novel. I am not 100% sold on Iain M Banks but his novels always have enough in them to justify the read. I had already read Matter (entirely out of order) then gone back to the beginning of the series with Consider Phlebas, then on to The Player of Games and Use of Weapons. Next in order, according to Wikipedia, was Excession so I spent an Audible credit on it, downloaded it and have made a start.

Now this is what’s odd. Since picking that book I have spent a bit of time on the Audible site, playing their Easter Egg game to pick up some free first chapters that looked interesting. As I navigated the site, I kept seeing Excession showing up all over the place. I thought it was due to some kind of personalisation of the webpage, because I had just bought the book. But I then realised it was TOP of the Editor’s Sci-fi picks. How so? Audible promoting a 17 year old book from the middle of an established sci-fi series? Then I spotted the Audible release date. Excession has only been available on Audible since 7 March 2013, i.e. less than 20 days before I randomly picked it as the book I wanted to read, in all ignorance of its newness on Audible and the fact they were doing their best to promote it on the site.

Anyhow, I am back in a familiar world. Incredible flights of graphic imagination on a gargantuan scale – no Culture book could be filmed without a bank-breaking CG budget. Comic conversations and absurd interactions with aliens that only make me wonder whether I am not reading a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book. An odd narrative structure that means it takes time to get a handle on where the book is going. And a slow, dark side that will probably turn quite savage, disturbing and thought-provoking. And probably lots of silly annoying bits, too.

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Bridge of Birds Bridges the Pigeon-Holes

Books As ever, I have a both a Kindle book and an Audible book on the go. While Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel occupies the “Now Playing” tab on my Audible app, I am around 40% of the way through Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart on the Kindle.

The best way I can think to describe Bridge of Birds is as an Absurdist Comedy Serial Crime Caper set in an ancient China that ranks higher in historical authenticity than the Japan of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, but not by much. I could also say that it is hilarious, witty and marvellously entertaining, because it is.

It is regarded as a Fantasy book, although it is very different from the vast majority of books so categorised. Technically, it falls into the sub-genre of Chinoiserie. Or so Veronica Belmont claimed on the Sword & Laser podcast, after a fashion anyway. She had considerable difficulty pronouncing “Chinoiserie”.

BrigeofBirds

I had obtained Bridge of Birds on Kindle before I knew it had been chosen as a Sword & Laser book-pick, but brought forward my reading of it when I learned of its selection. I was only a few pages into The Guns of Avalon (Book #2 of the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny) but that book is now “on pause”. So far I seem to have taken to Bridge of Birds rather better than either Veronica or her co-host Tom Merritt, both of whom seem to be slow to warm to it. Surprising, that. Hughart’s book may be off-beat but I had taken Tom and Veronica to be sufficiently widely read that they would have been more instantly receptive to something as refreshing as Bridge of Birds even if it is hard to pigeon-hole.

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Channelling the One Power in the Fourth Age

Spoiler Check: I have completed A Memory of Light (Book 14 of the Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Books One of my own personal expectations, before completing the Wheel of Time series, was that something would happen as part of Rand’s final showdown with the Dark One that would lock away access to the One Power. No more channelling. By anyone. I had assumed that Rand would defeat the DO by cutting him off from the One Power (and the True Power) but at the same time stop anyone else from using the One Power, for good or for ill.

There are two reasons for this line of thought. The first is a simple deduction based on the fundamental premise of the Wheel of Time itself. The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend, and so forth. It is one big cycle and one Age’s present is another Age’s myth or legend, and everything comes around sooner or later. Hence our own real world, under this construct, falls within one Age or other, such that our myths contain echoes of Rand’s world (all the Arthurian legends, Perrin’s hammer appears as Thor’s Mjollnir from Norse mythology, etc.) while historical events and people from our own world become the subject (after suitable distortion) of songs known to Thom Merrilin in Chapter 4 of The Eye of the World.

So if the One Power can be channelled in the Third Age (and presumably before it), why can no-one channel it now? This does raise the question of which Age we ourselves inhabit. Do we come after Rand’s time? Before it? Does it matter? The question still remains: what is Robert Jordan’s explanation, within the WoT construct, for why there is no channelling in our world? I had expected that answer to emerge from the denouement of A Memory of Light. But it appears that it didn’t.

The second strand to my rationale was the perceived trend, as WoT progressed, away from a reliance on channelling and more on science as we know it. Rand established schools of science as a legacy for after his expected demise at Shayol Ghul. Why? Surely it reflected his expectation that after the Last Battle, people would need science to replace the use of the One Power. Similarly, there were developments in warfare such as Aludra’s Dragons (cannon) and mechanised crossbows. The relationship between use of science and use of the One Power is a little confused though because before the Breaking of the World there was both channelling and science, for example in the Age of Legends there were aircraft (Sho-wings) and other technological artifacts.

I thought my theory had been vindicated in the Epilogue to AMoL when Rand revealed that after the Last Battle he could no longer channel. But that appears to have been because he simply replaced use of the One Power with his new ability to affect the Pattern directly. After all, if channelling had vanished for everyone it would surely have been mentioned elsewhere in the Epilogue. Would the Aes Sedai still have been worrying about appointing a new Amyrlin Seat if the One Power was lost to them? And Rand’s bond to his three women would surely have dissolved – but it clearly hadn’t.

So I’m none the wiser. Maybe we live in the Nth Age where the ability to channel has been bred out of us. But maybe someone will rediscover the talent and the Dragon will be reborn once again.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass …


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The Hall of the Lame Wolf

Spoiler Check: I am about one-third of the way through Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Not that spoilers are much of a consideration in the context of a novelisation of well-known historical events.

Books Not everything I read is SF or fantasy. Wolf Hall is a hugely successful mainstream historical novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, who acted as Mr. Fix-it for Henry VIII, everyone’s favourite Tudor King. Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize and other things for it.

At the moment, I am trying to re-engage with Wolf Hall, having put the book on pause (literally) upon the release of A Memory of Light, the final Wheel of Time book, on 8 January. I had started Mantel’s novel on New Year’s Eve and got through about 8 hours out of 24, on Audible, before the Wheel-of-Time-induced moratorium. On completing AMoL, I picked it back up again to find that the Android Audible app had helpfully forgotten my place and reset the book to the beginning. It must have decided I had given up on it (i.e. “lemmed it”). If so, it was not far wrong. I had more than trifled with the idea of abandoning Wolf Hall as a bad job.

The question is: why have I found this massively popular book so much of a slog? There are a number of reasons, and oddly enough my enjoyment of Fantasy books may be part of the problem.

The first issue to note is the narrator. With audiobooks, the choice of narrator is critical to the reader’s enjoyment, maybe far more so than might be imagined. A bad (or poorly chosen) narrator can ruin what might otherwise have been a wonderful book, much as great narration can turn an average or mediocre book into something quite pleasurable. Yes, the author’s words are all still there but the narrator’s voice is the conduit you have to connect with. I find Simon Slater’s rendition of Wolf Hall a real turn-off. His default voice, which he uses to narrate Thomas Crowmwell’s thoughts, recollections and observations, is only mildly annoying. The voices he adopts for the characters’ dialogue are an altogether different matter. Particularly Cardinal Wolsey, who does a lot of speaking in the first third of the book; less so later after his fall from grace. Now I can understand why Simon Slater came up with a thoroughly unctuous and sanctimonious voice for the portly, ageing Cardinal but that makes it no less painful to listen to.

The narration is not though the only problem. It may be a matter of expectation on my part. The reason I decided to give Wolf Hall a go was that I happened to hear Hilary Mantel interviewed on BBC Radio at the time that the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was going on sale. Mantel painted the latter book as a gritty, no holds barred portrait of a callous, determined, power-hungry man who would stop at nothing to secure personal power while in the service of the King. It sounded like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire transposed into the world of real history. That would be irresistible. But there would be no point starting with the sequel, and Wolf Hall had achieved such acclaim…

In the event, I have so far found Wolf Hall to be somewhat lame and rambling. Thomas Cromwell comes over as a decent and honourable man, despite his difficult early life and the various personal tragedies he has suffered. Devoted to the Cardinal he served, even after the latter was stripped of his position, and still trying to get him reinstated while finding himself caught up in serving the King. He is intelligent and capable but oddly unconflicted, uncorrupted (unlike all the other nasty caricature nobles at Court) and certainly not power-crazed. For the most part, the book’s “action” boils down to a bunch of conversations which lack the wit or cutting edge of a Tyrion Lannister. Mostly quite twee.

Essentially, the book lacks punch and worse, lacks focus. Mantel adopted a narrative style centred around Thomas Cromwell’s “stream of consciousness” which basically means that it is forever diverting into recollections, anecdotes and flashbacks, sometimes recursively. The result is a highly non-linear narrative flow. Maybe Mantel thought this would make the novel distinctive, or “modern”. Certainly it is a good way of bulking it up. But it does interrupt and dissipate the thrust of the story. The asides and rat-holes would add something if they entertained or illuminated, but mostly they are a frustrating distraction. Ultimately, that is the main reason I have struggled with Wolf Hall.

Still, the flow has settled down a bit and the story is showing some faint signs of gathering momentum so the likelihood is that I will not be lemming Wolf Hall for at least a while yet.

FOOTNOTE: Isn’t life full of odd coincidences? Today I decide to write a short post about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, who also wrote The Giant, O’Brien, a fictionalised story about a real-life oversized 18th Century Irishman, whose bones are on display at the Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn  Fields, London, which is where I happened to attend an all day seminar yesterday (at the College not the Museum). The seminar was about Risk Management – nothing to do with giants, surgeons, wolves or halls.

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