What I’ve Been Reading: September/October Reviews

Ok, I’ll admit: I might have gone a little too heavy with my book choices this time, which means it took me a lot longer than I expected to get through them. Luckily, it was totally worth it, and I have some great recommendations. My September/October reviews include an escape into a gritty fantasy world filled with unlikely heroes, a self-help book about chimps, and a look into the history of cyber spies.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

thebladeitself

When I came across this novel, I was looking for my next big fantasy series to get my head around. I wanted something dark, something gritty and unconventional, with characters that were something more than the farm boy who gets dragged into a magical adventure when both his parents are killed. I wanted something as unpredictable as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, with characters to rival Robin Hobb’s. And I am glad to say that this book delivered.

For the most part, The Blade Itself follows three central characters: Logen Ninefingers,  a renowned warrior with a dark past, Sand dan Glokta, a cripple and expert torturer, and Jezal dan Luthar, an arrogant fencing soldier. None of these are your typical protagonist, each one both fatally flawed, but somehow almost worryingly likeable.

Plot-wise, this novel is very much a set-up for the following books in the The First Law trilogy, and serves to establish the cast of morally grey characters and set the scene of the dark world they live in. For this reason, it was difficult to get into. In the tradition of epic fantasy, it was slow moving, and about half-way through, I did wonder when the “big bad” was going to make an appearance. Of course, a “big bad” would be far too simple for Abercrombie: I have a feeling there’s a lot more to the rest of this story than the good guy vs. the bad guy.

This book requires patience, but if you read for the beauty of writing, for escapism and for intricate characters, then it’s worth it. However, if you’re someone who looks for action on every page, and rapidly progressing stories, then it won’t be an easy read.

This book required a lot of investment on my part, and the narrative took me a while to get into, but I loved the characters from start to end. I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series, but I think I’ll be taking a break before I tackle the next instalment.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters

chimp_paradox_cover

You might be questioning my decision to read yet another self-help book after I only just reviewed one in my last book review post. But bear with me, because this one was different: it felt goal-based, it felt like it was directed at people with drive, and it was so easy to read. I was also pleasantly surprised by  the range of topics inside the book, as it moved from learning to control unwanted emotions, to learning effective communication, to improving self-esteem.

Most of the book focuses on how to manage your “chimp”, the emotional part of the brain, which can sometimes act in mysterious and undesirable ways, and even, according to Professor Peters, cause you to sabotage your own success. The book trains you to remove unhelpful thoughts, which Peters refers to as “gremlins”, and challenges you to replace them with helpful ones, which propel you forward rather than hold you back.

I was particularly grateful for the refreshingly straightforward exercises at the end of each chapter. These generally don’t take too much time, and are often small challenges which you can fit into your everyday life. Unlike some self-help books, there’s no need  to fill out large worksheets and start sketching diagrams. All it requires is a little bit of thought, and somewhere to jot your thoughts down. And most importantly, it works.

I also really enjoyed the section on effective communication, which I feel like even some of the most seasoned communicators could benefit from. Another highlight was an end of chapter exercise in which I was asked to create my own “stone of life”. This basically involved writing out my values, a set of helpful “truths” to promote realistic expectations, and my “life force”, a list describing how I want to live my life and what I want to achieve.

The only real problem I had with the book was that the language of “gremlins” and “chimps” and “moons” and “planets” became annoying after a while, and began to sound a little patronising.

This book was filled with ideas that I would happily pin up on my wall, and I would highly recommend this to anyone who finds themselves standing in the way of their own success.

Rating: 4/5

Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies by Gordon Corera

intercept

In Intercept, Corera recounts the history of computers and spies, filling in the blanks between the famous story of Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers at Bletchley Park, and the recent revelations made by Edward Snowden.

For me, this was a tricky book to get into. Within the pages of this book were so many stories, so many names, so many timelines, that at times it was hard to follow, and particularly hard to remember “who’s who”. In around 400 pages, this book covered huge chunks of computing history in great detail. But I’m glad I read it.

My favourite section was probably the story of the Morris Worm, one of the first worms in the history of computers, a story of how one graduate student’s “harmless” intellectual exercise inadvertently became one of the most famous denial of service attacks on the internet. I also enjoyed reading about the creation of public-key cryptography, and the balanced account of the (ongoing) encryption debate.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is sick of conspiracy theories, tabloid articles and scaremongering YouTube videos, and wants to hear a more balanced perspective on the complex relationships between technology, espionage, privacy, security, business and even warfare.

Rating: 4/5

As for next month, I’m in the mood for something lighter (if not in content, at least in weight). The books I’ll be reading include Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, a young adult novel about a fanfiction writer leaving for university, and Sex Criminals, a graphic novel about a couple who have a bizarre trick to stop time. November reviews are now available here.

Feel free to comment with any recommendations of books I should read and review in the future, and let me know your thoughts on any of the titles I’ve reviewed so far!

Previous month: The Guild by Felicia Day, illustrated by Jim Rugg, Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, and The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick.

To keep up with what I’m reading, make me a recommendation, or read more reviews, add me on Goodreads, follow me on WordPress using the button in the right-hand navigation panel, or follow me on Twitter.

Featured image: awesome fan-made map by Scubamarco on Deviantart.

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