Never Say Die

Scientia potentia est

Posts tagged review

0 notes &

Great fantasy books

As promised, the second half of my book recommendations; fantasy works this time.

As in the last post, the cover images link to the Amazon.co.uk book product pages, Amazon.com Kindle link below where it exists. Note: for some reason, I can’t get a direct link to Irish/EU Kindle titles for some of these books, but they do exist - from the catalogue pages I’ve linked to, where you may be told it’s not for EU consumption, click the “Kindle Edition” in the formats list and it’ll take you to another version that is available to European Kindles. God only knows, special editions or something.

The Lies of Locke Lamora (plus sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies, with another due out soon AFAIK), Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora (US Kindle) (as above, click through for EU/Ireland version)

Very nice fantasy this – the usual orphan thief/Oliver kind of thing, but very well done. Likeable main character, very readable and entertaining stuff, plenty of clever schemes and convoluted scams. “Light” fantasy setting – some interesting background quirks, but generally lighter on the magic and wizards/elves/dwarves than “sword & sorcery” fantasy like Feist or Tolkein.

The Painted Man (plus sequel The Desert Spear, more to follow), Peter V Brett

The Painted Man (Ireland Kindle)

Very readable and entertaining, likeable hero, pretty original idea (demons come out of the ground at night to terrorise/kill folks and have to be kept back by wards,  gradual decline of a largely cowed humanity as a result, young chap has enough of hiding and goes Chuck Norris on the bastards, more or less). Very readable style, got through these ones very quickly, as I recall.

The Way of Shadows (and two sequels), Brent Weeks

The Way of Shadows (US Kindle) (as above, click through for EU/Ireland version)

This trilogy is probably tending towards YA, but I found it quite readable and entertaining in any case. Pretty standard idea – battered orphan apprenticed to master assassin, becomes ultimate killer, assorted conspiracies and such. Generic-sounding, but it’s quite well done and readable, nice characterisation.

A Game of Thrones (plus sequels), George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones (Ireland Kindle) (also available in a 4-book bundle as shown in the image, just search around)

Yes, these are every bit as good as they’re hyped up to be, and on a scale and a richness that the TV series (while good) just doesn’t capture. Very well written fantasy – gritty, shades of grey abound, much plotting and politicking, plenty of action too, with very little of the elves/dwarves/pointy hat stuff of other fantasy. I just finished a re-read through the whole series up to the latest one, and would highly recommend them to anyone.

The Name of the Wind (plus sequel The Wise Man’s Fear), Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind (US Kindle) (as above, click through for EU/Ireland version)

Again, very hyped, but very very good. The story (told via a frame story) of the early days of Kvothe, a legendary hero rather highly regarded by both himself and others. Very readable stuff – likeable hero, great pacing, as compelling as they are long.

The Black Company (plus several sequels), Glen Cook

Chonicles of the Black Company (Ireland Kindle) (this is an omnibus of the first three books, good value)

Interesting fantasy this, stumbled across it through Amazon lists I think. The adventures of a company of mercenaries, as recounted by their archivist/medic. Quite shades-of-grey, pretty bleak – there isn’t much in the way of good guys here, but they’re not that bad either. Unusual writing style – very sparse, not much description, uses simple nouns as place-names (e.g. cities include Tome, Charm, Frost, Juniper, etc) and nicknames for almost all characters. Polar opposite of meandering drawn-out epics like Jordan’s, for instance. Wouldn’t have thought I’d like it, but strangely compelling stuff, finished all three of those first books.

Wizard’s First Rule (plus the first few sequels), Terry Goodkind

Wizard’s First Rule (US/Ireland Kindle)

I read this series (up to a point) a good many years ago, and recall them being very readable and entertaining. At least for the first four or five – check the Amazon reviews, but I recall it goes off the rails towards the end, turns into a thinly-veiled diatribe against communism (no, really) versus personal freedom and what not. Early books I remember fondly though, nice classic fantasy, decently written.

The Anvil of Ice (plus a few sequels), Michael Scott Rohan

(not available on Kindle, AFAIK)

Might be a bit more obscure, this, but truly great stuff. Read these as a kid, and then again a few years ago. Fantasy, set in a vaguely Norse themed world under siege by the Ice (yep, that is capitalised and they’re more than just the glaciers of an impending ice age). This one is all about the blacksmithing – that’s how the magic system works, and the main character grows to become a smith. The writing style is great – very readable, but a nice saga-like style, good language above most fantasy authors. Great imagery, generally very good books, fond memories of these ones.

Filed under review books

1 note &

Great sci-fi books

I orginally posted a few recommendations for good sci-fi and fantasy reading as a comment on someone else’s blog a while back. It turned into a decent sized list, which I figured deserved a blog post or two of its own. Add in a mate’s request for such a list, and here we are. This post is for the sci-fi, fantasy to follow shortly. 

The cover images link to the Amazon.co.uk book product pages, Amazon.com Kindle link below where it exists. Note: for some reason, I can’t get a direct link to Irish/EU Kindle titles for some of these books, but they do exist - from the catalogue pages I’ve linked to, where you may be told it’s not for EU consumption, click the “Kindle Edition” in the formats list and it’ll take you to another version that is available to European Kindles. God only knows, special editions or something.

Altered Carbon (plus sequels Broken Angels and Woken Furies), Richard Morgan

Altered Carbon (US Kindle) (as above, click through for EU/Ireland version)

Major fan of these ones. Sci-fi action with a heavy dose of noir styling - I’m partial to that sort of thing anyway, and these are very well done indeed. Leans as much towards 40’s hard-boiled detective tales as modern space opera. Suitably violent and cynical, though the main character makes a great anti-hero. The universe is well sketched in, with transferring one’s mind from body to body a major element (that’s how interstellar travel and relative immortality work here, amongst other things). The main character is a cynical beaten down ex-military type, a former UN “Envoy” (basically death-on-legs, largely due to having their minds busted up and rebuilt in somewhat scary ways). He’s dragged in to investigate the death of a dude - by the dude himself, now installed in a fresh body. The plot spirals down into violent conspiracy from there, in typical convoluted noir style. 

Pandora’s Star (just as an example, include just about everything he’s written), Peter F Hamiliton

Pandora’s Star (US Kindle) (as above, click through for EU/Ireland version)

Fantastic space opera stuff here from a UK author, real epics. Very modern feeling sci-fi (tech-wise and such), though following classic space opera themes – ensemble casts, very large-scale action, galaxy-spanning stuff. There’s a great feel to his material that I’ve never really been able to put my finger on – a cheerful exuberance maybe, in terms of how he lays the tech and the action on thick, though still playing it straight. His worlds aren’t Star Trek utopias by any means, but there’s real positivity there in terms of the level of tech and progress, the pro-activeness of most of the characters and organisations, or something like that. Pandora’s Star is part one of a two-part sequence, and he has several other trilogies and a few standalone books. Pretty much all of them (I’ve read most of what he’s written) are fantastic stuff, highly recommended.

Midshipman’s Hope (and several sequels), David-Feintuch

(no Kindle editions, also out of print - you’ll need to order a MarketPlace one)

This is great stuff – CS Forester’s Hornblower moved into space, effectively. Takes the “sapce navy” thing to the logical extreme; full-on Royal Navy from the 1800′s kind of setup, obsession with discipline, rigid tradition, honour, rank etc. Very readable stuff.

Starship Troopers (etc etc), Robert Heinlein

Starship Troopers (US Kindle) (this one’s only available to US Kindles, for some reason)

A classic of military sci-fi, many titles in that sub-genre trace their roots to this chap. Highly recommended, especially if you want more oldschool sci-fi. In the more YA line (he wrote quite a few of those too) I read Time for the Stars many years ago as a kid, recall being well inspired by it.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

The Forever War (US/Ireland Kindle)

In a similar vein to Starship Troopers (it came later and is obviously inspired by it), this is another classic of military sci-fi. The author served in Vietnam, and the book obviously draws parallels with his experiences of that conflict. Time dilation is used to good effect – you go to a distant war, and come back a very long time later (relative) to find everything has changed and you don’t fit in – obvious Vietnam allegories there. Great stuff.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Old Man’s War (US Kindle) (as above, click through for EU/Ireland version)

More military sci-fi here, not as famous as Haldeman and Heinlein, but quite good. Interesting premise – folks that are close to dying of old age on Earth can volunteer to be rebooted, so to speak, as young soldiers to go off and fight off-planet (which is kept cut off from Earth). Well written, interesting twist on the usual young-man-goes-to-boot-camp military sci-fi thing.

StarFist: First to Fight (plus numerous sequels), David Sherman and Dan Cragg

Starfist: School of Fire (US/Ireland Kindle)

This is straightforward military sci-fi, as are its numerous sequels in the same vein. It is written by ex-military folks, and that shows – very much a regular infantryman/Marine’s experience here. Not quite in the same league as the other stuff I’ve posted, but certainly good light reading if you want more military sci-fi.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game (US Kindle) (as above, click through for EU/Ireland version)

Another classic, very compelling and readable stuff.

Filed under review books

8 notes &

Founders At Work

Founders At Work cover

According to my trusty Kindle, I’ve finally finished this book (it’s substantial; hard-copy is 500 pages in medium-large paperback form with a compact font), and figured I’d fire out a quick endorsement. Short version: it’s great and anyone with any interest in startups and/or the IT industry will enjoy it.

The book is straightforward; it’s a series of a few dozen interviews by Jessica Livingston (one of the founding partners at Y Combinator) with the founders of various tech companies, new and old. These interviews are of the sort you might see in Wired or Inc; a handful of brief questions with answers generally expanded on at length by the interviewee - this isn’t a quick back-and-forth Q&A. The structure of the book means that it’s very accessible - even though it’s long overall, you can just jump in and read a particular interview you’re interested in for a pick-up-and-read experience.

The interviewees are of course the real value in the book, and they really do cover the gamut. This includes the legendary Steve Wozniak talking about the early days of Apple (practically creation myth stuff for folks in this line of work), the founding of Adobe and the stories of VisiCalc and Lotus. The book being published in 2006, it also ranges to more modern giants such as Joel Spolsky on Fog Creek’s origins, Craig Newmark (Craigslist.com), the creators of Hot or Not, PayPal, Hotmail, GMail, Del.icio.us, Firefox, Flickr, RIM (of Blackberry fame), the TiVo system, TripAdvisor, 37Signals and more. If that list of startups doesn’t have you salivating, this book ain’t for you and neither is the tech industry.

The interviews are, almost without exception, fascinating reading, and offer great insight into the origins of some of the most famous tech companies out there, not to mention plenty of valuable advice for would-be entrepreneurs. Not sure the world needs another 10-steps-to-founding-whatever from the likes of me, but in any case, some of the key themes that come through throughout the book are persistence (many interviewees emphasise that point), adaptability (several of these companies grew as spin-offs or sidelines of previous ideas), passion and belief (another oft-repeated mantra) and the importance of good partners and good hiring.

Well, there’s really not much more to say about it. If you want to know how some of the hottest companies and products in this industry got built, either for its own sake or because you want to do some building yourself, go buy this book.

Filed under review Business tech books

0 notes &

Amazon Kindle review

Noble as it is to link to other folks’ stuff, about time I got back to producing some. Anyways, I picked up an Amazon Kindle (3rd generation, i.e. the current one) some months back, and I’ve been meaning to write about the thing for a while.

One liner: The Kindle is a great piece of kit and everyone who reads books should get one, no question.

Exec summary: The Kindle is great. Nice form factor, very slim and light, feels good to hold. The screen’s very easy to read off of for long periods, regardless of whether you’re indoors or out in the sun - it’s much closer to paper than an LCD. Amazon have seen to it that it’s very easy to use, from the device itself to the book buying experience. The range of books is good, though far from all books are available, particularly with older books. This situation is improving all the time though, and there’s likely enough to keep most people going. Between its very slim form factor and the fact that the battery will last for weeks of use, it’s particularly well suited for travelling. It’s also excellent value; starting at $139 places it far below the cost of a more general-purpose tablet device. I’ve had one for a while now and read well over a dozen novels and other books on it, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Long-winded review: I’d been considering an e-book reader for some time, and after a 5-minute hands-on with a Kindle, I headed straight back to my PC and ordered one. If you can, I’d recommend you see one in person - that certainly sealed the deal for me. The Kindle really is an impressive device in the hand - the form factor is great and feels good to hold; it’s very slim indeed (8.5mm thick) and weighs in at just 240g (for the wi-fi only version). The controls are straightforward; there’s buttons on either side of the screen for turning pages, plus a few navigation buttons and a small QWERTY keyboard for typing in searches and notes and such (not something you’re likely to do much of).

Kindle side view
Very slim indeed.

The “e-ink” screen is particularly amazing the first time you see one. Doesn’t resemble an LCD at all - the contrast and clarity level really is getting very close to paper. It’s not backlit, and can be read off of for hours without any more difficulty than paper in my experience. The paper-like contrast levels also mean that it reads in sunlight just as well as under fluorescent light. (Note; the screen on the 3rd generation Kindle is one of the best available at present, they improved quite a bit over previous generations). The screen refresh is pretty fast (again improved with the current hardware), under half a second.

Kindle vs paper
Not quite up there with paper for contrast, but very effective.

The fact that once an e-ink display is “set” it doesn’t take any power to maintain the image leads to the Kindle’s very impressive battery life. I have the wi-fi only version, and this will easily last three weeks of regular use between charges. Very handy for holidays and travel, and you’re unlikely to ever be stuck without power. It does take a while to charge (several hours), but when it’s such an infrequent occurrence, that’s not a major issue.

One big advantage for devices dealing with text-based books instead of music or video is that text takes very little space, and compresses very well. Without much ado, the Kindle holds around 3,500 books, which is a pretty substantial library. The small size of book files also means that even over a weak connection, it takes seconds to download an entire novel once you’ve purchased it.

The Kindle was first launched in the States, and if you’re based in Ireland, you actually still purchase it from Amazon.com, and likewise your books are purchased from that version of the site, in dollars. Amazon make this all very smooth - they handle delivery and taxes and such, and in my case at least, the device was delivered within a few days. At $139 for the current 3rd-gen wi-fi version (plus shipping and such) it’s very good value indeed. If you’re in the UK, you can buy the UK version, and UK books, from Amazon.co.uk in Sterling. The 3G version of the Kindle contains a SIM card that’s already been fully configured by Amazon and rigged up with local networks - it works as a roaming US mobile phone, effectively, but Amazon take care of the charges and details, you just use it transparently either at home or overseas in a pretty wide list of countries.

Kindle front view
Also renders pretty good grayscale graphics.

Using the Kindle day-to-day is very straightforward - you have a Home screen listing your books, you can navigate around, read books, organise them into categories, and other basic functions. You can purchase books from the device itself with Amazon’s 1-Click ordering system (via wi-fi, and optional works-everywhere roaming 3G), or on the main Amazon website for download to the device later. Either way, Amazon make the experience as smooth as possible. You can also transfer non-Amazon PDFs and e-books in .mobi format to the device. (If you want to read technical books, papers and the like, there’s also the larger but more expensive Kindle DX, whose bigger screen is probably better suited to that). It’s all cloud-based, so your books stay attached to your account, and can generally be downloaded to any device (there’s Kindle reading apps available for the iPhone, Android and PC), synchronises your reading position between devices, etc.

The range of books was one of the things holding me back from picking up an e-book reader, but the catalogue is pretty extensive and getting better all the time (Amazon now shift slightly more e-books than they do hard-copies, which can only help). Of what I read, I’d guess about 50% of my current wish list is available for the Kindle, which is more than enough to keep me going. New releases are generally coming out in Kindle format as a matter of course, it’s mostly existing stuff that still has to catch up. I’d suggest taking a search around the Kindle section of Amazon.com to see how well-represented your own tastes in genres and authors are.

There’s also publisher, region and licensing messes of course - when browsing from Europe, you’re getting access to a smaller range of books than are available from the US, which is pretty annoying. Books also appear to occasionally disappear from the store (though not from your account if you’ve bought them) as publishers row with Amazon and their partners. This kind of bulls**t will hopefully work itself out eventually as the publishers see the writing on the wall and Amazon beat them into shape. Pricing is OK; books I’ve looked at are usually cheaper than their hard-copy equivalents, but not by much. Works for me.

In addition to books, you can also access a range of newspapers and magazines on the Kindle (either one-off editions or by delivered subscription), though I haven’t tried this myself. Other features of the Kindle include the ability to adjust text sizes, spacing etc to suit your own needs (rendering any book large-format print if you want it that way), and also a reasonably effective text-to-speech reader that will read a book aloud for you (sometimes disabled for particular books due to publisher issues). There’s a basic web browser on the device, though I don’t see anyone using this regularly, it’s not really what the tech is built for.

In summary, after putting several thousands of pages of novels and other books through the Kindle in various circumstances, I’d highly recommend it to all and sundry. It’s of particular benefit for commuting and travelling - as many books as you want in your jacket pocket, plus with the 3G version you can immediately buy and download more from pretty much anywhere. Saves a deal of dilemmas and suitcase stuffing, particularly for the more avid reader or those fond of thousand page epics. This is great tech and everyone should have one.

Filed under review tech

0 notes &

The unsung FPS Part II - STALKER

The sun has sunk low in the sky, throwing orange-tinted light across the rugged terrain and casting long shadows as you jog over the cracked surface of the road. The large industrial complex you emerged from sits on the horizon behind you, bent girders and crumbling walls lit by the setting sun. To one side, a series of bulldozed mounds are studded with the half-buried remains of vehicles, rusting to nothing. As you swing too close, your Geiger counter starts to click rapidly, and you veer away before the radiation dose builds up.


Read more …

Filed under review games

0 notes &

The unsung FPS Part I - Metro 2033

Some longer posts in the mix - I’ll run over a few FPS’s from my collection that are less well known than the likes of Battlefield and the Call of Duty series, but very much worth your time. First off - Metro 2033, an atmospheric post-apocalyptic shooter set in and under a future Moscow.

Metro 2033

This game (released in March of this year) seemed not to cause much fuss, but it really is a fine piece of work. I’d heard the odd bit about it on news sites and hadn’t paid much attention, but eventually picked up a copy after reading a favourable GameSpot review. Glad I did - very enjoyable game. It’s set in the subways under a (more) frozen Moscow, following some kind of future nuclear disaster; survivors huddle up underground, mutants here, social breakdown there, usual story. Still, this game makes a very good go of the theme. The presentation is fantastic - graphics (on a decent system) are very good indeed, lighting and shadows in particular, with some impressive set pieces throughout the game - it’s not all tunnels. Good use of particle effects, mist, dust, etc, characters and their animation look great, solid voice acting and excellent use of sound in general. More than any of that, it all comes together to create a fantastically crafted atmosphere - shadowy, decrepit underground tunnels have been done a thousand times, but rarely this effectively.

Gameplay is fairly linear, moving from one region to the next in the subway as the plot develops, but it gets intense as hell. Real survival horror going on here - constantly in oppressive darkness, strange sounds and long-dead corpses as you explore, snarling monsters leaping from the shadows, desperate fights with limited ammo and torchlight casting giant shadows, wheezing gas mask to get across polluted areas, etc. That’s not to say it’s DOOM 3 Soviet Edition though - the combat is robust and tactical, especially when you’re fighting human characters in the game’s more open levels, of which there are a few. These “sandbox segments”, so to speak, involve more tactical options as you assault through a fortified position, work your way across heavily occupied areas (including some where enemies are at war amongst themselves), etc. You can set your own balance between stealth and aggressive approaches in these areas, and generally it works well. There’s plenty of opportunities for creeping around in the shadows with a silenced weapon or throwing knives, taking out sentries that wander too far from the lamplight.

You’ll also have company; for every nerve wracking trek through abandoned tunnels and corpse-strewn rooms, you’ll be exploring a fortified subway station crowded with men, women and children, or fighting across the surface (yes, you get outdoors, and yes, it’s even rougher than the real Moscow) accompanied by a squad of heavily-armed companions. There’s some (very light) RPG elements - you’ll spend some time wandering around subway station settlements, and here you can trade up weapons and equipment (high-grade ammunition doubles as currency). It’s very much a shooter though - dialogue is mostly in (good) first person cutscenes, and there’s no stats, questing or inventory as such.

There’s a reasonably long single-player campaign, and while it might be a bit linear and thus less replayable than some, the richness of the experiences is such that you’ll want to revisit it at least once.

As the video below (melancholy music is from the game) suggests, atmosphere and rich visual detail is everything in this game.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQgf1SMLycE

You can get a more professional review from GameSpot here;

http://www.gamespot.com/pc/action/metro2033thelastrefuge/review.html

Filed under review games