Sunday 20 September 2015

Review - "The Shepherd's Crown" by Terry Pratchett

This is the 41st and final Discworld* book.

What a sad statement that is.

Terry Pratchett's delightful universe began its life as a parody of fantasy tropes. Powerful wizards and witches, magnificent barbarians, cunning thieves, and incompetent guardsmen.

Over 41 books the Discworld has retained that sense of humour, but developed into an entirely solid fantasy setting. With its endless possibilities for story, Pratchett never felt the need to go elsewhere, content to potter around in his creation.

He returned to his favourite characters time and again. This final book features the accomplished young witch Tiffany Aching, along with her companions the Nac Mac Feegle - a clan of ferocious blue gnomes with broad Scottish accents.

Together they face an invasion of elves, in the high places where the border between worlds grows thin.

This is Terry Pratchett's farewell to his fans and his Discworld, released well after his death from early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

One of his major characters dies early on in the story. Their approach to death - practical and accepting - made me want to cry. It is a thinly veiled glimpse at Terry's gratitude for his life and opportunities.

The Shepherd's Crown is infused with warmth. It is a love letter to the best of humanity - the peacemakers, the healers, and the humble salt of the earth folk who most need their attention.

It doesn't have any sort of twist, as Pratchett's books often do. And I was never in any doubt about how it was going to end. But the journey is beautiful.

If you've never read one of Discworld books - oh, how I envy you! - then don't start here.**

But if you know your way around Ankh-Morpork already, you must read The Shepherd's Crown. You must turn the last page and feel the sweet sadness as the tale finally ends.

(I was lucky enough to speak with Terry Pratchett about 15 years ago, when he was touring Australia. Have a listen via the Nerdzilla blog.)


* So called because the world is a disc, rotating on the backs of four gigantic elephants, themselves standing on the shell of a planet-sized star-turtle.

** They're all good, but Equal Rites is probably the best jumping-on point. And you need to read at least one of the Tiffany Aching books before you start this one - preferably The Wee Free Men.***

*** Terry loved a good footnote. They're often the funniest bits of his books.

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Review - "Fitz and the Fool" trilogy by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb has become very meta as a fantasy author - with this series she has created a trilogy of trilogies.

The central character of them all is FitzChivalry, who is both gifted and cursed to be the bastard son of a Prince.

He is unwanted, yet his blood is too valuable to waste. He lives in the royal castle, but is treated with contempt by those within it. He has amazing telepathic gifts, but will be killed as a witch if he reveals them.

Fitz finds a place as the apprentice to the royal assassin, who teaches him to be both a spy and a subtle killer.

The first three books, The Farseer Trilogy, are about Fitz's younger years. They are masterful fantasy works, with incredibly solid characters in a gripping tale.

The next three books, The Tawny Man Trilogy, are about Fitz in his middle age. It's quite enjoyable, if not quite as good as the first trilogy.

And now we come to the new trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, which is about Fitz's mature years.

He's in his 50's and has a new identity which allows him to leave his difficult upbringing behind. He has a place and a family. He has found contentment.

Naturally, it doesn't last.

One of the hundreds of characters from the books (that I've completely glossed over) is the Fool, who first appears as the King's jester and is later revealed to be a pale prophet.

Fitz and the Fool become closer than brothers, as the Fool uses Fitz to find a better future for their world, no matter how brutal their trials may be.

As this new series begins, they haven't seen each other for a decade, but the Fool reappears as a broken man. He has been tortured and nearly destroyed by those who would take his prophetic power for themselves.

In this horrific state, he doesn't want the new, gentler Fitz. He needs the axe-wielding assassin of old to avenge him and cleanse his homeland of evil.

This is Robin Hobb in top form. I had trouble putting these books down at night, finding myself reading until 3am.

Like the original Farseer trilogy, these have a real emotional depth. Fitz has been through so much by this time, that it's heart-warming to see him finding happiness and devastating when that begins to crash down around him. I am absolutely hanging for the final book to appear next year.

For anyone who's read the first two series, I cannot recommend these new books enough.

If you haven't read them yet, pick up Assassin's Apprentice. You will thank me for it.

The Farseer Trilogy
- Assassin's Apprentice
- Royal Assassin
- Assassin's Quest
The Tawny Man Trilogy
- Fool's Errand
- The Golden Fool
- Fool's Fate
The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
- Fool's Assassin
- Fool's Quest
- Assassin's Fate (working title, due 2016)
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Saturday 22 August 2015

Review - "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi

I can see why so many people rate The Water Knife. It's a very smartly drawn vision of our catastrophic near future.

Global warming has lead to drought and dust storms in America's south-west, where cities have legal battles over river rights and the losers dry and die. Droves of Texan refugees are heading north, where the local border patrols are waiting to shoot them down.

The "water knife" of the title is Angel, a soldier/spy/assassin for the water company which represents the interests of Las Vegas. He physically cuts the pipelines to other cities, leaving them to chaos and ruin so his own might survive.

It's a brilliant concept.

And yet The Water Knife lost me.

About a third of the way through, I found myself putting the book aside for a week, wondering if I cared enough to keep reading. There was no character I could relate to and the story seemed to be muddling around and getting nowhere.

I flicked forward past halfway and found the action had accelerated, so I skimmed the pages in between - just enough to get a handle on the plot - and continued on from there. I found myself really enjoying the last third.

So this book has some sterling qualities. It is a piece of true science fiction, taking a logical line from the now into a very believable future. The world that Paolo Bacigalupi has created is vivid and frightening.

And when the story eventually comes together, it's gripping and action packed.

But you have to work past the lull in the middle to get there.
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Tuesday 7 July 2015

My Radio Reel

I've been in radio for my whole adult life.

A couple of times I've strayed away from the industry, but I'm always drawn back to it. There is an energy and intelligence in radio that I love.

The first half of my career was spent writing and voicing commercials. But then I began working for ABC Local Radio, where I've done just about every job they have to offer.

Here are some highlights.

For the most part I'm a Producer and Presenter, which means that I organise programs, interview people, and go out into the field with a microphone to record reports.

I am also the creator of an ABC podcast called Nerdzilla, which is made by nerds for nerds. It's all about comics, computers, cosplay, sci-fi, superheroes, geeks, and games.

I make it with my friend Andrew Hogan and we're quite proud of it. It's very silly and a lot of fun.

And I sometimes make more scripted stuff.  I was the Producer for a terrific Radio National series called Blogdaddy. And I made this series called Tech Mate, which is about explaining technology. (Like I said, I am a nerd.)

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Sunday 5 July 2015

Review - "Half a War" by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea trilogy was written for younger readers, but I didn't notice that when I read it.

The books are immediately engrossing, thrusting you straight into danger and intrigue.

I love that - when a writer has the confidence to just kick you screaming into their new world. And if they have this level of skill, you are swept along effortlessly.

Part of Joe's plan for making this series work for teenagers is reducing the number of characters.

His first series, The First Law, has dozens of them. Each one must be described, developed, and set into the plot - and that's before they actually do anything.

But the Shattered Sea series concentrates on only a few.

Book one Half a King follows Yarvi, who goes from prince to Slave, then must fight to find his way home.

Book two Half the World is about a pair of young warriors who travel across the planet to find allies for their besieged kingdom.

And book three Half a War gives us a Princess from a failed kingdom, a dog of war who can't choose which collar to wear, and a clever boy who would advise kings.

With fewer characters, the pace accelerates. Because you spend less time setting them up and more time moving the story forward. And Joe Abercrombie does that, relentlessly.

The world of the Shattered Sea is beautifully complete. You can feel the weight of history, the clash of cultures, and the breadth of the continents.

But it never slows down to lecture you. The story thunders along, allowing you to catch glimpses of the background from the corner of your eye.

I have enjoyed all of Joe Abercrombie's books, but this trilogy is a real highlight.

It's as dark, violent, and well-realised as his previous works. And it's got a fantastic unstoppable pace.

Highly recommended.

Joe came to Australia in 2015 and I had a chat with him on ABC Local Radio about writing these books. He's a very interesting bloke, have a listen.

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Chick Magnet

An assassin on the trail of a quarter-million in stolen drugs.

A thief who'll kill anyone in his way.

A gang war brewing, because the sharks can smell blood in the water.

And the mystery of the chicken who appeared on the assassin's pillow.

Chick Magnet by Joel Rheinberger is a fast-paced crime caper about a number-crunching hit man with the wrong bird in his bed.

If you're in Australia, I can send you a copy for $20 including postage - just message me through Facebook.

If you're elsewhere in the world or you prefer an ebook, you can get it from:
Still not convinced? Here's a sample - the first chapter.

Mick Jeffrey was the book-keeper for a Sydney company that imported cheap electronics.  His meticulous spreadsheets were full of speaking toys, no-name motherboards, mobile phone chargers and tiny speakers.

Smith & Wang bought the stuff cheaply from Asia, mostly wholesaling it to two-dollar shops around the country.  Though Mick's boss Smitty also ran a profitable little stall at Paddy's Markets, so sometimes they would take a punt on a new gadget, buy a crate of them and see how the buyers reacted.

A slender 26 year old with a neat appearance and excellent posture, Mick carefully cultivated blandness.  His mousy hair was neither too short nor too long.  He chose good quality clothing without obvious branding or bright colours.  He drove a grey Toyota Corolla and never broke the speed limit.

On a Thursday in November, he arrived at the Marrickville warehouse by 8:20am in order to make coffee before he was due at his desk.

Mick was the quiet one at work.  He was well respected as Smitty's second in charge, but his reserved manner meant that he usually ate his lunch alone.  After nodding and murmuring greetings to a few people, he went into his office and pulled the door not-quite-closed.  It was the same signal as his body language – you can speak to me if you need to, but if you don't, then don't.

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Saturday 17 January 2015

A good death

My father, Jack Rheinberger, passed away in 2014. A brief obituary can be found at the ABC Open “In Memory Of” project.  And you can read about his life in his memoirs.  But this story is about how he died.

Dad had been struggling with plumbing problems all year. It was mostly due to old scar tissue on his prostate, the legacy of radiation treatment a decade ago.

He was constantly in and out of hospital, usually with blockages. The pain and indignity of the treatment was almost as bad as the problem.

One night the blockage was so bad that the Doctor couldn’t get a catheter in.

“Nurse, get the introducer,” the Doctor said. “And Jack, I advise you not to look.”

Of course, Dad looked.

You know how you can bend a coat-hanger to unlock a car? Imagine something similar, made of surgical steel, with a nice little bend in the end to get around that awkward spot in your urethra.

The Doctor spent five minutes poking around with it, trying to get it past the blockage. Dad gripped both sides of the bed, holding as still as he could, crying silently with the pain. Finally, something slipped past his lips.

“Oh Jesus!” he said. “Sorry, sorry...”

“You don’t have to apologise to me,” said the Doctor.

“I wasn’t,” said Dad, ever the staunch Catholic, “I was apologising to Jesus.”

These hospital trips were petty common over the last year, but the problem was gradually brought under control.

Then one night, Mum and Dad called their five children together to share some bad news. Dad told us that his GP had done a follow-up scan for something else and found a terminal problem.

“There’s cancer in my lungs and my bones. But my kidneys are the problem – they’ll pack it in maybe three or four months from now.”

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