Archive for September 2018

Book review – Ender’s Game

On googling something like ‘best sci-fi books ever’, Ender’s Game appeared.  I knew the title from the movie starring Harrison Ford and had seen parts of it a while ago, never having watched it all the way through.  What I saw of the movie didn’t compel me to read the book at the time, so I guess I was gambling on the book being a whole lot better than what I saw, earning its place on those best sci-fi book lists.

Written by American novelist Orson Scott Card and published in 1985, we find ourselves in the company of “Ender” Wiggins, a product of a selective breeding programme designed to produce Earth’s last hope in its anticipated fight against the ‘buggers’.  The Earth lucked out in its previous encounter with the buggers and isn’t taking any chances this time round.  Ender is deemed, at six years of age, to have the perfect blend of qualities that will make him the perfect military commander, and is summarily taken to join similar youths at the Earth-orbiting Battle School.  Ender is put through his paces in Battle School, a Full Metal Jacket for the 21st or whatever century Ender exists in.  Ender leaves behind sibling geniuses Peter, who failed Battle School due to his border-line sociopathic tendencies, and Valentine, who has the opposite tendencies of Peter.  Not to be outdone by Ender, the siblings follow their own path to world peace or domination.

I was struck by how familiar the book felt.  Admittedly, I had seen parts of the film but it was reminiscent of other books I’d read including the 1974 novel The Forever War, the more recent and great Ready Player One (the book, and regrettably not the film!) and even Harry Potter.  Ender finds himself isolated (by design) and pushed to the limit by the military brass and, while not a particularly likeable character, I found myself sympathising and rooting for him throughout all of his unrelenting zero gravity war games (Ender’s Game’s Quidditch!).  While there is an interesting sub-plot involving Ender’s siblings, it’s Ender and his travails which are the focus of the book, which I found myself picking up at any available opportunity, which I don’t think I’ve quite experienced since reading Ready Player One.

Ender’s Game is incredibly readable and fun and I recommend it highly.  I’ve just ordered the DVD and hope that it goes some way in living up to the book.

Songs from the Vault

The last installment of Songs from the Vault was a brief sortie into the world of dream pop.  This time round we’re going to go on a far more eclectic journey, embracing jazz, contemporary classical, dubstep and more, so belt up…

First up, and in memory of Tomasz Stanko who died earlier this year, is Terminal 7 by the Tomasz Stanko quintet.  This track is from the quintet’s 2009 album Dark Eyes.  If it sounds familiar, it may be because it’s the theme to Homeland.  It’s a dark, melancholy and hypnotic piece, perfect for the TV series.  Hopefully, the Homeland connection brought and will continue to bring more listeners to Stanko’s door…

Sticking to our darkened path we turn to Burial (aka William Bevan), a South London-based dubstep artist who was anonymous for the early part of his career, despite success and critical acclaim.  The track in question is Kindred, off the 2012 EP of the same name.  The Wikipedia entry for this EP includes a great summary of this tune, so I’ll spell it out here.  There’s not much more I can add…

NME’s Ben Hewitt wrote that “all the highfaluting talk is justified: the EP’s title track is a 12-minute depth-charge that crackles and fizzes dangerously, imbued with the same knife-edge tension you feel when trekking across London at night.”

Next up is Memory Pieces 1 composed by American David Lang, and performed by pianist Andrew Zolinsky.  The memory pieces in question are tunes dedicated to friends of Lang who’ve passed on.  Memory Piece 1 is titled ‘Cage’ and dedicated to the avant-garde, minimalist compose John Cage.  It’s a solo piano piece and one where where each note played is struck numerous times to create a collage of overlapping sound.  I don’t imagine it’s to everybody’s taste but one is struck by the openness and tension within the piece, while retaining it’s musicality and emotion…

I want to stick with the John Cage thing but mix things up a bit.  The next track is Triplicate/Something Happened That Day by DJ Shadow from his 2006 album The Outsider.  The track starts with a sample of Cage’s In a Landscape, which Cage composed in 1948.  It’s not the best track on the album but a track worth noting given the Cage-DJ Shadow connection…

Seeing as I’ve gone from David Lang to DJ Shadow via John Cage, I’ll continue with the connection game.  Last up is Lonely Soul from Unkle’s 1998 album Psyence Fiction, which was produced by DJ Shadow and James Lavelle.  Lonely Soul was written by DJ Shadow, Wil Malone (who did the string arrangements on Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy and The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony), and The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, who sings on the track.  Listening to the track you can really hear what each writer brought to the party. It’s a great mix of Shadow’s trip-hop, Malone’s strings and Ashcroft’s vocals.  I remember the album being a disappointment at the time of the release, perhaps because it was so hyped-up.  Nevertheless, the album has some killer tracks including Lonely Soul, Rabbit in Your Headlights (feat. Thom Yorke) and Be There (feat. Ian Brown)…

I hope that you enjoyed this more eclectic edition of Songs from the Vault and that there was something for you.  Let me know!

Book review – A Legacy of Spies

I reviewed John Le Carre’s The Spy who came in from the Cold back in March.  When reading it I hadn’t realised that Le Carre had already returned, 55 years later, to the events in ‘the Spy’ with the publication of his 2017 novel A Legacy of Spies.  ‘Legacy’ centres on the character of Peter Guillam, who, if memory serves, was a peripheral (at best) character in the Spy.  Guillam is now living in Brittany, enjoying his retirement, when he’s summoned back to London (you never leave the service!) to go over some old case files, involving Alec Leamas, the chief protagonist of the Spy, which are causing the secret service – a.k.a. ‘The Circus’ – some bother.

The story of the Spy is told in a clever way, mainly via the debriefing of a supposed defector.  Legacy is equally clever in terms of its storytelling, using the present time, flashback, and official and unofficial reports dating from the era of the Spy.  Through these means were are brought into the events leading up to and including those that unfold in the Spy, putting us both in the chair of scheming, spymaster Smiley, and on the ground with Leamas and Guillam as they play their respective roles in Smiley’s schemes.

The means by which the story is told also allows for multi-dimensional perspectives on events, which sometimes leave you wondering what the truth is.  Those who know the Karla trilogy or have seen the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will know that some within the Circus suspected it of being infiltrated by a Soviet agent.  This mood of distrust pervades Legacy and in so doing, Le Carre not only binds Legacy to the Spy, but also with the Karla Trilogy making it a weightier and elaborate affair than it might otherwise have been.

If you’ve read the Spy then Legacy is a must read.  If you’ve not read the Spy, read it.  Then read Legacy.  Both are fairly short books (Legacy clocking in at around 265 pages) so reading them back-to-back wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal. Quite the opposite, in fact.  I don’t think one needs to read the Karla Trilogy to enjoy Spy and Legacy but it would certainly make for a more rewarding reading experience.