King of Thorns

by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #2)

We find the young Jorg Ancrath shortly after where we left him at the end of “Prince of Thorns”. He’s still ill-tempered, a murderer, destructive, sly, and entirely ruthless. He often seems to act at random, and at best his loose goal might be avenging the deaths of his sister and brother, but mostly he’s just rebelling against being told he can’t do things, or he’s expected to do other things. That’s how Jorg works – instinctively, brutally, reflexively, but still somehow brilliantly:

‘Is this going to be one of those times when you pretend not to have a plan until the last moment?’ Makin asked. ‘And then turn out to really not have one?’

Jorg is a king, now, but it hasn’t quietened his nightmares, which are now haunted by a mysterious copper box. And it hasn’t smoothed one iota off his sharp tongue- we’re sarcastic about everything, if it deserves it:

The bladder-pipe, a local Highlands speciality, is to music what warthogs are to mathematics. Largely unconnected.

Meanwhile, Jorg finds himself opposed to the man who would be Emperor across the whole continent. It’s not that Jorg doesn’t like him, or see why he might be a great Emperor, it’s mostly just his innate stubbornness, and unwillingness to bow down to others, ever. So Jorg finds himself in his castle, with his very young new bride, poorly defended, with twenty thousand of the would-be Emperor’s troops marching towards him. Only his wits – and maybe a handful of peculiar artifacts – might help him.

Occasionally, you get glimpses of the broader setting of this book, from which these artifacts derive – we find that we’re in a long post-apocalyptic future:

When a game cannot be won, change the game. I read that in the book of Kirk.

These kind of “Easter egg” insider nods to the broader science fiction/fantasy genre are delicately done, and a delight to find.

The book is told through two intertwining timelines, one taking only a few hours, while the other takes months, until eventually they come together. I thought this was very well done, and a great narrative device. It’s a form that works very well for other genres, but I haven’t seen it used here, and I rather like it – fantasy as smart fiction, even if it still takes in some of the tropes on the way.

But it’s not all smart asides and clever references. Some of Mark Lawrence’s writing here, as in his other books, soars high above us:

Still the music, the deep slow melody, the high and broken counterpoint, as if the mountains themselves had become the score, as if the glories of hidden caves and secret peaks had been wrapped around the ageless majesty of the ocean and turned into the music of all men’s lives, played out by a woman’s fingers, without pause or mercy, reaching in, twisting, laying us bare.

Five stars, very well deserved.


Three Tales from the Laundry Files

by Charles Stross

Three Tales from the Laundry Files by Charles Stross

Heroes of the Frontier

by Dave Eggers

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

Delightfully written book from Dave Eggers, in which we follow Josie, a former dentist, who is having a bit of a mid-life crisis and has abandoned her job and taken her two children to Alaska. Most of the time, these are her companions: Paul, a calm eight years old, and Ana, who has an extraordinary knack for getting into danger, but who has somehow survived her first wild five years. She hires a shakey old RV, and sets of to parts unknown without a plan – or even a plan for a plan, as far as we can tell.

For me, half of the delight is her children and their straightforward reactions and interactions. Paul absolutely dotes on his little sister and is careful and detailed, while she is the epitome of a wild child. They are beautifully drawn characters, and the way they meet the world and whatever it – or their mother – throws at them is charmingly done.

The other half of the magic is Josie herself. Her inner life is richly portrayed, with my favourite scenes being those in which she mentally sketches out musicals based around what she’d experiencing:

“Her head was full of ideas, elaborations and reversals. The show about Grenada? Would that be the first thing to explore? Or Disappointed: The Musical? Or something encompassing all of Alaska. Alaska! No, without the exclamation point, because this was not a demonstrative place, no, it was a place of tension, of uncertainty, a state on fire. Alaska with a colon. Alaska:. Yes.”

It’s a book about their haphazard road trip, with forest fires and law suits and lightning storms, but also moments of tranquility and beauty, long afternoons watching her children playing with other kids in a little brook or on some old playground, and hidden side adventures away from everyone. The plot may or may not resolve, but as with our own lives, in the end it’s about the journey, not the destination.

A strong four stars.


Dark Matter

by Blake Crouch

Wherever you are in life, all you have control over is your choices. Did you make the right choices yesterday? Last year? With your first serious partner? That’s what this book cleverly explores. In our youth, all this lies ahead:

“It’s the beautiful thing about youth. There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential.”

Jason Dessen, the hero, is confronted by a masked abductor who asks him “Are you happy in your life?”, forces him to drive to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city, and knocks him unconscious. When he awakes, he’s strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. Or at least, they’re strangers to him – but he doesn’t seem to be a stranger to them – they know him, and greet him as a friend.

The Jason who is knocked out is married to a gifted artist, Daniela, whom he married fifteen years before when he found out she was unexpectedly pregnant with his child. Jason gave up his research into quantum mechanics, and took a job as a college physics professor at a quiet university. But in the world he wakes up in, he isn’t married to Daniela, he has no son. In this world, he’s a celebrated genius, who has achieved something truly remarkable, and held in awe by those around him.

I found the premise for the book dragged me right into it. The choices we make define us, but are there other versions of “us” who made different choices? How did those turn out? Better, or worse? The book picks this theme and runs with it flat out, leading to a thoughtful, complex, thriller, which explores the topics brilliantly. It’s also a great exploration of quantum mechanics, and some of the implications thereof. QM is weird – very, very, weird:

“We all live day to day completely oblivious to the fact that we’re a part of a much larger and stranger reality than we can possibly imagine.”

But somehow we cope with this. Is that a flaw in the theories of QM, which make predictions that – quite literally – are accurate to thirteen decimal places? Or is something else going on:

What if we actually inhabit the multiverse, but our brains have evolved in such a way as to equip us with a firewall that limits what we perceive to a single universe? One worldline. The one we choose, moment to moment.

The pace never lets up, and the conclusion is brilliant, and entirely logical. Four stars, well deserved.


Central Station

by Lavie Tidhar

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Mind in Motion

How Action Shapes Thought

Mind in Motion by Barbara Tversky

This was a intriguing book in two ways: first, the subject matter was fascinating, which wasn’t a surprise as that’s why I was reading it, but secondly, I found the prose style delightful. I’ll come back to this later: let’s start with the contents.

It’s all about spatial thinking, and how the way space itself – via gestures, and the metaphors we derive from it – shape the very fundamentals of the way we think. Abstract thinking isn’t “abstract” at all – it’s based on spatial metaphors. We don’t think with words inside our head, we think in (abstract) space in there.

From a personal point of view, this really struck a chord. I was a mathematician and then a computer programmer, and still play with both, and in these worlds I almost always find myself thinking spatially about problems, imagining I’m moving this variable or data structure from here to there, or twisting it in some way to change its form or use. Spatial thinking, Barbara Tversky contends, enables us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world.

One of the excellent things about this book is that it’s all based in experiment. Hundreds of different experiments underpin the picture that is painted herein, with practical applications everywhere from things that are obviously spatial – how to draw better assembly instructions or navigation instructions – through the physically laid out – comic strips – to the abstract – how to come up with a larger variety of original designs.

As I said, I also came to love the prose style of Barbara Tversky. It beautifully combines short sentences, long sentences, simple words, technical jargon, sentence fragments, lists, the whole gamut, in such an elegant and rhythmic way. Here’s a random example, where she’s talking about tree diagrams:

“The enormity of the influence of tree diagrams on the accumulation and dissemination f knowledge has not been fully recognized. Trees, knowledge, brain. By now their uses are uncountable and their visualizations myriad. The Big Bang, phylogenetic trees, corporate trees, occupational trees, decision trees, diagnostic trees, linguistic trees, knowledge trees, probability trees, family trees, the list goes on. And on.”

All in all, a great book. Four and a half stars.


Blood Bound

Mercy Thompson book #2

by Patricia Briggs

Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs

Another excellent showing here, with Mercy Thompson getting caught up with the local vampire seethe, whilst trying not to get her friendly neighbourhood werewolves too entangled in the resulting mess. The tone was sometimes much darker than the first of the Mercy Thompson books, as getting involved with the vampires seemed to involve getting a whole lot of blood over many things. If you don’t like your urban fantasy too gritty, this might be a problem, but I felt it was all in keeping with the plot, and none of it was gratuitous or merely put in to shock.

Four stars this time instead of five, as I was a little alarmed with the way an increasing number of the other main characters seem to be falling romantically for Mercy herself. I also wasn’t totally convinced by Mercy’s motivations to go out hunting alone again in the final 30 or so pages of the book. Still, very enjoyable, and I’ll be reading more!


After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

by Jack Kornfield

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield

This classic book explores the experience of meditation and spirituality through quotes and stories from nearly a hundred very experienced practitioners, ranging from nuns and priests to Zen masters and Tibetan Buddhist lamas. They’re all anonymous, so that they could speak freely, and they talk about the highs and lows of their journey. The title tells the story: we might spend hours, days, or even months at the highest spiritual plane, but in the end we still need to clean our teeth and wash our smalls. Even though this may feel like we’ve fallen, in fact we are just living, right here right now in the moment, and that’s the highest achievement we can hope for.

There are so many beautiful quotes and passages in here. Even though in the end I couldn’t quite give it five stars because sometimes I just plain lost the thread through the chapter, there are some lines that are just heartbreakingly beautiful, and capture the human condition to a tee:

Underneath all the wanting and grasping, underneath the need to understand is what we have called “the body of fear”. At the root of suffering is a small heart, frightened to be here, afraid to trust in the river of change, to let go in this changing world. This small unopened heart grasps and needs and struggles to control what is unpredictable and unpossessable. But we can never know what will happen.

Just so. Four and a half stars, and a massive hug to you all.


Torchship Trilogy

by Karl K. Gallagher

Torchship Trilogy by Karl K. Gallagher

The Mind Illuminated

by Culadasa (John Yates

This is an extraordinary book. Really, it’s amazing. I mean, I know I bought it because it had just about the highest rating I’d seen for a meditation book on Goodreads, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but still… it’s superb. So yes, it’s a gold-standard five star book for me too, no question.

What’s so great about it? Basically, The Mind Illuminated (TMI, hereafter) describes in detail a structured, systematic, entirely secular, ten-stage path all the way from your first sit, through to Insights and potential Awakening. Each stage has guidance as to what you should be doing to progress, as well as a description of what you’re likely to be running into trouble with, and how to deal with that. TMI’s path is suitable for the beginning meditator to follow, or for a more experienced meditator to pick up further along.

Now, at this point I should warn the gentle reader: there is a lot of controversy online around John Yates, the person. He has been kicked out of the meditation school he founded, apparently because he spent some of the trust’s funds on women with whom he was having sex. All participants were consenting adults, and not students of the school, but he is married, so to the extent this was harming his wife, behaviour does not align with the way “enlightened” people should act. I’m going to leave all this to one side. My view is that we are all human, all of us have our issues, meditation can make a significant improvement to our lives, and what he does is for him and his wife, who is (at the time of writing) still very much on his side. If it’s anybody’s business, it’s not mine. And none of this speaks to the efficacy of the method he describes, which is 2,500 years old – I didn’t expect it to magically cure all ills, and I don’t put its teachers on pedestals.

Back to the book. The stage descriptions are detailed and specific, with a clear progression and explanations. It uses a small technical vocabulary that is explained up front, and that you’ll easily pick up and be able to understand. The author generally uses English words for this vocabulary, while noting the Pali originals, and uses words that have a specific meaning here – things like Attention, Awareness, Subtle Distractions, and Dullness. This is extremely helpful, I found, and made my own understanding of what was going on much clearer.

The distinction between Attention and Awareness in particular is key, and the explanation here is very clear:

Attention singles out some small part of the context of the field of conscious awareness from the rest in order to analyze and interpret it. On the other hand, peripheral awareness is more holistic, open and inclusive, and provides the overall context for conscious awareness.

This dual aspect of meditation is vital – it’s not all about concentration and attention, it’s also about maintaining awareness of the larger context whilst keeping attention stable on a single object. A difficult balancing act for some of us!

Of course, it would doubtless take most of us a number of years to progress through all ten stages, and indeed many of us (myself included) will probably never make it to the end. This doesn’t matter, though: each step brings additional benefits into your life. You can gain further benefits by undertaking some of the other practices detailed in the appendices – Walking Meditation, Metta or loving-kindness meditation (my favourite!), and Analytical Meditation (for working on specific problems in your work or life).

So that’s it in a nutshell. It’s my new go-to manual, beating out my previous favouriate Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. Don’t get me wrong, I love MCTB: if you do get half way up the ten-step ladder, it will brilliantly show you what the view from there on to the top looks like. But even the author of MCTB, Daniel Ingram, recommends this very book – he says of it

Essential reading for anyone interested in meditative development from any tradition … this is the most thorough, straightforward, clear and practical guide to training the mind that I have ever found.

TMI is also better for me than other classics like Mindfulness in Eight Weeks: The revolutionary 8 week plan to clear your mind and calm your life and Mindfulness in Plain English. Both of which are great introductions, and Mindfulness in Eight Weeks is very useful if you’re coming to meditation to help with stress and anxiety, as it integrates meditation with Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR), a clinically-validated technique to help with anxiety. TMI beats these for me, however, because of the Why? factor.

What do I mean by the Why? factor? I mean that The Mind Illuminated explains why you are doing the various things at each step. Why am I counting the breaths? To focus attention. Why am I doing a bodyscan in this way? To build peripheral awareness. Why do thoughts keep popping into my head? Because of subminds.

And what’s a submind when it’s at home? That’s the other thing I very much liked about TMI: in a series of interludes between the chapters on the ten stages, the book lays out a theory of how the mind seems to work. It’s somewhat science-based, in that it is in line with some of the most current theories in neuroscience. The model presented is of the mind as a group of many smaller subminds or “agents”, each with a specific purpose, which compete for attention. (If you want more on this, the best popular explanation I know of is Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind .)

Finally, if you do get into this book, there is a wealth of other material around TMI out there – of particular note is the subreddit, and various YouTube guided meditations or dharma talks by the author, Culadasa.

And really, yes, it’s a great book.