Monday, 23 March 2009

Final Impact: World World 2.3 by John Birmingham

As the final book in the Axis of Time trilogy begins events are coming to a rapid head.

It’s now 1944, two years after the events of Designated Targets. In Europe D-day has started a month early, the airborne invasion begins not with Men parachuting into france but rather crossing the channel in Huey helicopters, supported by Cobra gunships and preceded by napalm bombardments by jet fighters that have replaced propeller driven aircraft as the allies main fighters.

In the pacific the Allies have retaken Hawaii but their 21st century supplies of weapons have been depleted. Most ships have been refitted with the first of a new generation of weapons. Hopelessly dated by the UN standards advanced beyond belief by 1940s standards.

The super carrier USS Hilary Clinton returns to Sea refitted and at the core of a new taskforce including new destroyers and aircraft.

With the captured French stealth cruiser sunk with all hands nothing appears to stand in the way of the allies winning the war.

But Stalin has other ideas.

Choosing to re enter the War his forces quickly over run the Germans with jet fighters and their own versions of the AK-47. With suspicions mounting it is proven too late that Stalin has custody of the last of the missing UN Warships and the technological windfall it represents.

The Russians have the A-bomb and deploy it on a German held city as a display of their new military might.

Suddenly the future of the free world hangs in the balance.

Final Impact is a good finale to the Axis of time trilogy even if the eventual ending is somewhat open ended ( I don’t believe that the 21st century military would be allowed to resign from the armed forces and go into civilian life so easily) and what I think is a blatant attempt at setting up another series in the same universe.

Five out of five

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Splinter by Adam Roberts

According to the spiel on the Solaris website Splinter is a thought-provoking science fiction novel about faith, disaster and alien intelligence by one of the new masters of the genre.

When Hector discovers his father has channelled the family fortune into a bizarre cult who await the imminent destruction of the Earth, he is wracked by feelings of betrayal and doubt. Things change, however, the night an asteroid plummets from space and shatters the planet, leaving Hector and the remnants of the human race struggling for survival on a splinter of the earth.

Now the High ‘concept’ part of this novel is that it is spilt into three sections and each section is used in a different tense. The first section is written in the past tense, the 2nd in the present tense and the third section is written in the future tense. I had high hopes for this novel when I sat down to read it as lots of people had described it as 'high concept' but I ran into a problem.

I didn’t get it.

I found the switch between tenses very confusing and I’m not the only one. After a quick search of the net I found that based on most peoples opinions this is a ‘marmite book’. In the sense of you’ll love it or you’ll hate it, or to put it another way you’ll either get it or you won’t. There does not seem to be a middle ground with this book.

Despite this the central idea behind the story is a strong one and if you can get past the tense changes and ‘get it’ you’ll probably find it a good read.

I’ll give it two out of five but that’s only because I didn’t get it.

Designated Targets: World War 2.2 by John Birmingham

Designated Targets is the second book in the Axis of Time trilogy.

When the international naval task force from 2021 appeared during the Battle of Midway in the accident which came to be known as the Transition everything changed.

Four months later the 2nd world war as we knew it is in disarray.

Russia has withdrawn from the War and has signed a cease-fore with the Germans. The once allies are now co-operating again in various areas of research. With knowledge of forthcoming events supplied by the Japanese both Hitler and Stalin purge their ranks of traitors real and imagined. Stalin has all those who would lead after him killed which leads to a revelation of a important fact that the allies are unaware and could lead to disaster.

Realising their mistakes the Japanese have moved their plans and invaded Australia. The bulk of 21st century forces are deployed to oppose them and desperate fighting develops as the Japanese start to wipe out whole towns.

But this slaughter is a mere diversion as the Japanese intended it as a means to deplete 21st century munitions. Using a French stealth cruiser that was captured by the Germans after it was lost during the transition, they launch a devastating attack and invade Hawaii.

With the flagship of the 21st century forces damaged and stripped for parts, returning to the USA the allied forces prepare for the bloody retaking of the islands.

To add to the confusion the Germans attempt to invade Britain even though their forces are not strong enough. Leading the defence is the HMS trident a 21st vessel, with a Captain and crew fighting to defend their country and be accepted as equals.

New technologies already starting to come into play years before they were due to, lead to a change in the balance of power but most importantly everyone now has access to the information needed to build the A bomb. It’s now not a case of who can build the bomb? But who will build it first?

Designated Targets continues the series in a very strong fashion and the cameos from historical figures continues apace. Several enterprising individuals start to sign up famous ‘stars’ years before they will become famous, such as Elvis and Marylin Monroe. One group of 21st Century Marines meet JFK still in command of a motor gunboat now renamed ‘The grassy Knoll’.

Tensions between the 21st century personnel and the people of 1942 continues to grow and seem to be heading for a conclusion that will not end well for anyone. Several characters also die making you realise no one is safe as the author happily kills them regardless of if their major or minor characters.

I will give Designated Targets 5 out of 5.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1 by John Birmingham

Scientists hey? Sometimes they should really know better and when to leave stuff alone. Unfortunately nobody told a group of scientists this in Weapons of choice the first book in the Axis of Time trilogy by John Birmingham and in 2021 a experiment by a research ship goes horribly, horribly wrong.

The scientists don’t live to realise their mistake, heck they don’t live long enough to realise anything has actually gone wrong but their experiment leads to a international task force of warships to be thrown through dimensions into a earth identical to our own.

But that’s not all, their also thrown through time as well arriving during the Battle of Midway in the Second world war. Due to a misunderstanding, with the ships crews incapacitated their AI’s wipe out most of the US Pacific fleet. In an instant the balance of power is changed.

The newly arrived UN warships can wipe out whole fleets single handed and they also know what’s about to happen. But their ammunition is limited and they can’t go home. The axis forces are hostile and their ‘home nations’ even more so.

But things aren’t as simple as they appear.

Some of the UN ships were scattered with some missing. The Japanese seize two, leading to one of the more memorable sequences in the book where a ship is discovered fused into the top of a mountain. Now all sides have access to records and technological date decades ahead of their own.

As some UN personnel despair, others thrive in the new circumstances and start to find their feet in this strange new world. But enemies are gathering on both sides determined not to let the UN forces destroy the status quo.

Weapons of choice is a very exciting ‘alternate history’ novel if a little slow to get going as it’s obvious the author is setting the scene for subsequent novels. The ‘real life’ cameos are quite amusing, from Prince Harry to Churchill, to an AI who speaks in ‘Posh spices’ voice.

Some of the novel does not make easy reading, especially the sexism and racism displayed by the 1940s characters, but only as we’re seeing it ‘through modern eyes’. So it does rings true to characters from that time as they considered it normal, the idea of a woman in combat is inconceivable to them.

So I would give it a four out of five and I’m interested to see where the Author will be going with this series and if he can keep up the high standard he has set in this novel.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Watch on the Rhine by Tom Ringo and Tom Kratman

Watch on the Rhine is another addition to the Posleen War series and helps to answer one of my main complaints about the series in that it only showed what happened to the USA during the invasion and barely mentioned the rest of the world.

The Watch on the Rhine fits into the series by starting just after the events of Gust Front and finished before the events detailed in when the devil Dances, with a epilogue that occurs some time after the events in Hell’s Faire.

Germany is facing disaster. With most of its modern army off world, they have few remaining veterans to turn to,( The aliens have technology allowed people to be rejuvenated to their early 20s) to train their armies in time for the coming invasion. With the invasion of the USA bringing home the reality of the horror they face the German Chancellor is faced with an impossible decision. Do they hope that their armies will be ready in time with their current resources or does he turn to the one group that they swore never ever to recall. Does he make a devils bargain or will the cost be simply too high? This group?

The few remaining survivors of the Waffen SS.

This is not an attempt at Nazi glorification by any stretch of the imagination. The authors do not attempt to white wash the misdeeds of the SS or portray them as whiter then whiter heroes. They have written a very dark and gritty story that poses the question does the need for survival cancel out our programming? Will we do whatever it takes not matter the cost?

The level of detail in describing what happens to Europe during the initial invasion waves is excellent and fills the void nicely. If you have read the first four books you already ‘know’ that the German forces can’t win but you can’t help but hope. By the end of the book all of the old SS are dead. But the military training they have given to the younger generation allow the surviving population to reach safety in the Alps and prepare to take the war back to the enemy.

The description of the Posleen in this novel is much more chilling and they seem a much more dangerous enemy then the mindless foes they have appeared to be previously. A good example of this is a scene where they attempt to cross a bridge by carrying children as human shields!

The book also conveys that War is indeed Hell, that evil men can do good deeds and in the same vein good men can also do evil deeds and that mere survival is not always enough.

I would give this book four out of five. However you should keep clear if you are easily offended.

Hell's Faire by John Ringo.

It’s the 4th book in John Ringo’s Posleen war series and events are coming to a head.

The defences in the USA have been breached. The Aliens are now flooding through a vital pass and seem in danger of over running the last Human held bastions. The end of the War on earth is coming but who will be left holding the smouldering ruins of earth when all is said and done?

We left the series main hero at the end of the previous novel ready to fly with the rest of the unit to a vital pass in an attempt to block the flood of Posleen. Convinced it’s a suicide mission the ACS prepares for a last stand facing odds even worse then those faced by the Spartans.

Their only chance is one of the most powerful human War Machines in existence, the hastily repaired She-va gun nicknamed ‘Bun-bun’. Leading the Human advance on the pass it’s a trace against time. Can the ACS hold out, Can the Posleen over run them and continue their advance and just how much Posleen butt can Bun-bun kick!

This is the last book in this arc of the Posleen war series and the ending is bittersweet as the main character although victorious has seemingly lost everything including most of his family.

However at the want of spoiling things for anybody I won’t say anymore but there is a clue in that last sentence which sets up the next series set in this universe.

Still it is good end to a great series.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

New Kid on the Block

Well the main driving force behind me actually getting this blog started was the announcement of the forthcoming releases from the new Imprint Angry Robot.

That and the chance to join their ‘angry robot army’. I wonder what the Necrons and Skynet think of this but I digress.

They will be releasing four books initially

Book of Secrets


Of these four Slights has grabbed my attention the most. I’m not usually a horror fan but there’s something about the description which intrigues me.

Nekropolis comes 2nd, with Moxyland 3rd and Book of Secrets last.

Which was surprising to me as I have read the two books Chris Roberson has written for Solaris. Not to say that there is anything wrong with Book of Secrets and I’m sure it will be great but it’s just the other three just grabbed my attention more.

Still early signs for Angry Robot looks good. They’ve got a nice selection of books to launch with and if they keep going like this they should be able to build their range so all fans of Sci fi and fantasy should find something they like.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

Well first things first, this book was an easier read then the first book I read by this author. However it is still a quite hard read and as the first book will require a lot of time and focus to read, so don't start this if you want an easy quick read. It's taken me several weeks and as people who know me know, that is a incredibily long time for me.

I found this a much more interesting read then the first book mainly because it went into much more details about Henry VIII's wives then the first book and the book 'got straight into the action' as it were rather then spending lots of time scene setting which was such a problem in the first book.

Both the wives and the politics surrounding each marriage get the same amount of space devoted to them in this book and this really helps the narrative along. You get a real sense of the time and the character of each wife.

As with the first book you will learn a heck of a lot more about the Tudors by reading this then in one episode of the Tudors TV show and from that movie too.

So in conclusion. A very good read, as the author certainly has a gift for making a difficult and sometimes hard to understand period of history come to life.

Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir.

If Science fiction and Fantasy are my favourite genres, history books come a close third.

Okay well the first thing to say is this book is not a light read. It's taken me the best part of a month to get through it and as anyone who knows me can atest that is a exceptionally long time compared to the usual couple of days (or even faster) that it takes me to get through a book. You will need to stay focussed on it.

That aside if you can maintain your interest in the book you are rewarded. The amount of detail that it goes into about the court of Henry VIII is fascinating and amusing at times. There are some jobs you just wouldn't want.

The author seems to be a great believer in "setting the scene" and in some of the earlier chapters you do risk becoming overwhelmed in details, but when you get to the marriages of Henry the book really gets going. However the author has seemed to focus on the politics of each marriage more then the women themselves so if you want to read this book to find out more the personality and life of each of his wives you will probably be disappointed.

Mind you, you will probably find out much more about the actual history of Henry and his wives by reading one chapter of this book then in watching the whole series of the Tudors.

The only good thing about that series is the actress who plays Anne bolyen, who is rather pretty;

But I digress. So in conclusion the book is well worth a read but only if you have the time to give it.

Kethani by Eric Brown

It takes an alien race to show us what humanity truly is. This is the irony faced by a group of friends whose lives are changed forever when the mysterious alien race known as the K├ęthani come to Earth bearing a dubious but amazing gift: immortality

Or so sayeth the book blurb. Kethani to me really stands out among the multitude of 'first contact/aliens visit the earth' novels mainly due to it's scope. It doesn't try to focus on the real world ramifications it instead focuses in on a tight group of friends and follows them over the course of Decades. Plus these friends meet in a yorkshire pub which you don't often see in Sci fi.

One day the Kethani arrive, with multiple silver towers appearing all over the earth. They bring with them the gift of immortality a small implant which is placed under the skin of your temple. When you die you are taken to a tower, sent to the Kethani homeworld then return months later, rejuivinated and immortal. But what price does this gift bring? What happens to a world where you can live forever? Are the Kethani all they appear? and do you really come back as the same person who left?

Sensibly the novel doesn't answer all the questions that you want answered which I think makes this novel that much better as in real life you rarely get all the answers, plus not answering the questions leaves you hungry for more.

The novel consists of several smaller stories each focussing on a different friend and shows what happens to religion, morals and science in a world where death is no longer the end of your life on earth. The focus on each of these friends is also good as they are simple ordinary people, not scientists or soldiers, who you can emphasise with and you can almost see yourself in their places facing the problems they face.

I think a really great novel is one that makes you think and keeps you thinking long after you've put it down and Kethani certainly fits that bill.

Highly recommended. Five stars out of five.

When the Devil Dances by John Ringo

The third book in the Posleen War series continues the story started in a Hymn before Battle and its sequel Gust Front and Mankind is in serious trouble.

Taking up the story five years after the end of Gust Front all five expected Posleen invasion waves have hit the Earth. Most of the planet has been over run with the exception of mountain ranges and a few scatted areas where the temperature is not to the Posleen’s liking.

The exception to this is the USA where due to luck and geography they still hold out in a pocket protected by the rockies. With the population sheltering in underground cities nicknamed ‘sub-urbs’ the posleen are held back by massive multi-layered fixed defences in every pass supported by Artillery. So an un-easy stalemate has developed with the Posleen unable to over run the Human defences and the Humans lacking the numbers to drive the aliens off the planet.

Earth is also effectively cut off from the rest of the galaxy and the thin trickle of supplies reaching the planet is insufficient to keep the ACS units ( soldiers equipped in armoured combat suits, the elite of the army) up to strength. So when we rejoin the hero of the first two novels he is in command of the last remaining unit which is slowly dwindling in numbers.

The ‘benevolent’ darhel do not have mankinds best interest at heart as the Navy intended to protect Earth has been devastated in a series of actions and they firmly refuse to let the remaining vessels and forces off world to return home.

Then in a flurry of action an alien leader who has learnt his lessons too well breaks through the defences and leaves everything in the balance.

This book is good but I found a few minor nitpicks with it. The first is the time jump at the beginning of the story. We’d been building up to these massive invasions in the first two books and we essentially ‘miss’ them with only a thin time line to fill in the details of the events during these five years.

The second is continuing the focus on the USA in the same fashion as Gust front. I’ll admit that there’s good reason why it focuses on the USA as it is the last bastion of Human resistance after all but the fate of the rest of the planet is pretty much skimmed over in less then a paragraph and I think that weakens the whole ‘mankind’ is in danger theme and turns it more towards ‘the USA’ is in danger.

Still asides from this the book is very good and it ends on one heck of a cliff hanger.

Five stars out of five.

Gust Front by John Ringo

Gust Front is the second book in the Posleen war series and a direct sequel to a Hymn before battle which I reviewed here.

Despite the victories in the first novel, the best of Earths forces are still stuck in bloody stalemate defending two alien planets. Over three years have passed since the events of a Hymn before battle and the first wave of invasion is less then two years away. Earths defences are still being built and the navy is still under construction in the shipyards. In the early chapters there’s a real sense of urgency but a hope that things may come together in time for the first wave of invasion.

Unfortunately nobody told the Aliens the schedule and some of the Alien forces arrive early. It's not hard to guess that all hell breaks loose.

Most of the action in Gust front occurs in the USA describing the landings their. There are a lot of references to roads and cities which probably make more sense to American readers but despite that the action is still fast paced and relatively easy to follow.
It's good to see that despite the nature of the story it's still believable and easily draws you in. Despite the threat of invasion hanging over the earth, people still fight, still bicker and put their wants and needs first. Politics is also still around and the actions of politicians almost lead to disaster for the US forces.

You rejoin the main character and his family and experience a lot of the action through their eyes. However it was extremely shocking to me when one member of the family does not make it through the book as I really wasn't expecting it. Several other characters also fail to survive and casualties among the Earth forces mount with horrific speed.

The Aliens are defeated if only just. However the cost is huge as a large part of the earths planetary defence centres are in ruins, several cities are lost, casualties among earth forces are high and this was only a small attack, the first invasion wave will be ten times as big. The situation is desperate and you realise that the Earth needs some kind of miracle if it's going to survive.

Four stars out of five and this is only because the focus is kept firmly on the US relegating the consequences of the landings around the rest of the world to a few small paragraphs. The world is in danger so let’s hear about it rather then just the USA!

A Hymn before Battle by John Ringo

Humanity is not alone in the Galaxy, which many people consider good news. Unfortunately for Humanity that is the old good news to come from first contact.

The bad news is that a nasty alien species around who are over running planet after planet, who have a thing for gold and they treat any alien races they come across as walking, talking snacks. The only main galactic power to oppose them is run by accountants who can’t kill anything without going into a zombie like state and has a small worker like race who can build almost anything but can’t fight at all. So what this galactic power needs is a new race well versed in the art of war and has the anger, ability and stubbornness to take on these new bad guys and where could they possibly find a race like that hmmm?

A Hymn before Battle is the first book I’ve read by John Ringo and it’s great. He comes up with a very entertaining take on the first contact between Aliens and mankind, (they simply call the world leaders on the telephone) and the problem that Humanity faces is a big one. It’s not simply a case that we go and fight these Aliens, we have no choice. The Aliens are coming our way and Earth has only five years to prepare before we’re invaded.The Aliens have the technology but no idea how to use it so it’s up to Mankind to come up with armour, ships and weapons to beat the Aliens back. This is also another entertaining part of the book as the military call in science fiction writers to help in the design process.

Of course as the Aliens are very stingy accountants we’re not getting all this technology for free. In order to raise the funds to buy the technology and weapons for mankind to survive we now have three planets to defend. But as revelations follow it becomes clear that not everything is as clear cut as it first appears and with friends like these who needs enemies.

But then again Earth’s forces are doing quite enough damage to themselves through ignorance, politics and general infighting.

This book is the first in a series so it does end on a very foreboding note. Earth forces may have won the first battles but we certainly haven’t won the war. The Alien technology introduced may be advanced but it’s believable. There is no mega weapon that will be able to win the war and you do get a sense that even if mankind wins the cost will be heavy.

There is also a curious ‘backstep’ in our military forces as the bad guy’s weaponry means no aircraft, aerial or orbital surveillance of any kind. Missiles are also out, leaving Artillery as our only ace in the hole. All the fighting in this war will be up close and personal.

Most of this book focuses on one character and I’m sure that the rest of the series will stay focused on his him, his wife and children to give a view from the army, the navy and the home front as it were.

A few other characters are also introduced which I have the feeling we will also be seeing more of. Especially interesting ( and humorous) are the ‘rejuvenated’ former military characters who in some cases served in the 2nd world war who thanks to Alien technology are now back to their early 20s and having trouble adjusting to being young again.

I’m interested to see where this series will go. There is lots of potential in this series and lots of areas to explore. I hope the author doesn’t blow it.

Welcome, Welcome.

Well welcome to “Top of the Reading pile”. This is an idea for a blog I have had simmering away in the deeper dark recesses of my mind for sometime now. The final push to bring this idea out into the ‘light’ as it were was the launch of the new Angry Robot website. What self respecting geek could pass up the chance to join a angry robot army : - )

So what can you expect from Top of the Reading pile? Well I have a lot of books, nearly four book cases worth and this total is being added to all the time. So I will be using this blog to give my opinions on the latest books to join my collection plus some old favourites. Of course I don’t know if anyone will be that interested in my opinion but that’s the joy of the internet it doesn’t matter if anyone cares you can still voice your opinion anyway.

So be sure to check back regularly for my latest book reviews plus any reviews of anything else geeky I might throw in.

I’m also open to suggestions for things to read so please leave me your suggestion and I will attempt to review it as soon as possible.

So until later folks,

I have some reading to do.