Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Book Review - The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Book Review

Title: The Girl on the Train

Author: Paula Hawkins

Published: 2015

Rating: 75/100

The Girl on the Train Cover


(Adapted From Goodreads)

The most appropriate analogy I can use while reviewing The Girl on the Train (TGT) is to compare it to alcohol, but not just any alcohol, something that stings you. Tequila. TGT is like tequila. A few chapters in and my face was contorting in weird ways. The lemon was sour and the salt wasn't helping. It had been a while since I'd downed a novel like this and I wasn't sure if I still liked the taste. Fast forward a few more chapters and I'm walking around the party with the bottle in my hand, telling everyone it's the best tequila I've ever had in my life. I'm obsessed. I just can't enough TGT. With the "worm" floating at the bottom of her bottle, Paula Hawkins had me hook, line and sinker. Of course, the worm I'm referring to is the overarching murder mystery; a mystery that is mostly driven by Rachel Watson.

TGT's main protagonist Rachel is an absolute train wreck alcoholic. She's a nutter and there are times when she'd do things that were completely cringe-worthy, to the point where I actually needed to shake my head in disbelief; which would have looked hilarious as I was listening to the audio book version and running at the same time. As bad as she is, I still felt compelled to keep listening to the book at lightning pace. I had to know if her character would be redeemed somehow, because we've all been Rachel at one point in time, right? I think this is what makes TGT great, the way such a distasteful character can keep you intrigued.

Fast forward a few more chapters and the pessimist in me tells me that my bottle is half empty. At this point, I think I've guessed the ending and I'm wishing TGT would just pick up the pace and deliver the big payoff. It doesn't. It feels stretched. It feels as if Hawkins was drink driving with her car in 5th gear tearing up the freeway and spotted a police car before jerking the vehicle back into 3rd gear and easing back down to a snail's pace. At this point, I'm wondering whether I should stop listening, but of course, just like in reality after a few drinks, I don't. I had to know what happened to that poor girl Megan.

At the end of the bottle, TGT fizzes out with a very predictable ending, one that I had seen coming at the half way mark. I really wanted to be surprised and shocked, but I wasn't. Instead I was just walking around with an empty bottle and a headache. A good headache though, one that feels earned and worth the pain.

Overall, I really liked TGT, but, in the 'spirit' of continuing with my well worn analogy, I'm in no rush to lock my lips around a bottle like that for some time.

Who should read this book?
Anyone who loved the book (or movie adaption) Gone Girl.

- Chris Gander

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Book Review - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Book Review

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest "Ernie" Cline

Published: 2011

Rating: 90/100

Ready Player One


(Adapted From Goodreads)

Ready Player One (RPO) is an action adventure that explores the scary prospect of a dystopian future where everyone is obsessively connected to one giant virtual reality world called the OASIS. It centers on a young and geeky protagonist named Wade Watts who enters the world to solve a complex treasure hunt based on pop culture references.

To kick this review off, I have to say that RPO is one of best books I've read in years.

As a hardcore gamer and movie buff who was born in '84, it felt almost as if Cline wrote this book just for me. I finished RPO in less than a week and could literally not stop thinking about it the entire time I was reading it. Everything else in my life became secondary to reaching RPO's epic final chapter. Upon it's completion, I found myself telling everyone I knew about it and pestering them to start reading it. It's just that damn good!

While I usually offer up a bit of critical analysis about the author's writing, I cannot fault Cline's work in any way. Other critics might tell you that Cline over-explains everything, relies too heavily on pop culture references and, in doing so, lacks original thought... but to those critics I say "Have you forgotten how to have fun?" At it's core, RPO is supposed to be fun; the kind of fun you have as an adult when you rifle through your box of childhood toys and reminisce about the good times. It's the literary equivalent of jumping in Doc Brown's Delorean and heading back to the 80s. Cline HAS to over-explain the references for the sake of readers who were either not from that era or, quite simply, aren't geeks like me. He HAS to rely on references because that's what RPO is - it's a narrative that is held up by pop culture references like pegs. The way Cline weaves the references into the narrative is the main reason why I love this book and it's probably the reason why Spielberg fell in love with it and decided to make it into a movie.

Many of Cline's pop culture references are ones that only a a true 'gamer geek' will understand. To me, these felt like inside jokes and every time Cline cracked one, a smile spread across my face and I'd nod like "I see what you did there". To illustrate this, my favourite reference was: 'MTFBWYA'. If you can't work that acronym out by yourself in less than a few seconds without using Google, you probably won't enjoy RPO as much as I did.

Overall, it's no wonder Spielberg has picked this up as his next blockbuster movie. RPO is a ridiculous amount of fun and, if you're an adult, it'll make you feel like a kid again.

Who should read this book?
Anyone born in the 80s, freaks, geeks and gamers.

- Chris Gander

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Book Review - Darknet by Matthew Mather

Book Review

Title: Darknet

Author: Matthew Mather

Published: 2015

Rating: 55/100


(Adapted From Goodreads)

I'm a huge fan of Mather's work and find him to be a brilliant science fiction writer. His science and knowledge on key topics is spot on, interesting and really drives the story. CyberStorm is one of the best books I've read over the last few years, so I had really high expectations coming into Darknet. Sadly, Darknet didn't exactly live up to those expectations.

Darknet's major flaw is its pacing. I struggled to get through the first 100 pages. It took me over 3 weeks to slug through - compared to me finishing 'Ready Player One' within 7 days. Darknet only seems to pick up and grab your attention when the protagonist ventures outwards and embarks on an "adventure".

Once the pace kicks in, the middle of Darknet is fantastic. I found myself feverishly turning pages and actually caring about the characters. I couldn't wait to see what happens next. I also began paying closer attention to the science behind the story. At this point, the science had me so intrigued I was searching Google to learn more.

Then, sadly, the end of Darknet falls flat, with a climax that fizzles out with a weak sputter, as opposed to going out with a loud bang. It's very hard to write a book where the major "villain" is a computer system with no human attributes, making it almost impossible to care about.

Overall, I can still say I enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it to any fan of true reality-based science fiction. Just don't expect a high octane roller coaster.

Who should read this book?
Anyone interested in artificial intelligence and the stock market.

- Chris Gander

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Book Review - The Circle by Dave Eggers

Book Review

Title: The Circle

Author: Dave Eggers

Published: 2013

Rating: 65/100


(Adapted From Goodreads)

The Circle is a thought-provoking and cautionary tale about privacy issues that reads like it was written by my father, a man who is constantly saying that companies like Facebook and Google are ruining the very fabric of society.

As someone who lives on social media, wears a FitBit 24/7 and is obsessed with tracking everything, The Circle (TC) made me momentarily feel like an idiot... and I think that was Dave's goal when he wrote TC. While reading I found myself questioning my usage of social media on a daily basis. I found myself asking 'What's the point of all this?', 'Does anyone really give a crap about what I ate for lunch?' and 'Should I be doing something else with my time?'.

Did Eggers hit home enough to make me delete my Facebook account? No. Was TC powerful enough to make me tear off my FitBit and smash it against a wall? No. Will I stop being so "transparent"? No. However, Eggers definitely planted a seed in my mind that might grow and fester into something months, maybe years, from now.

I really wanted to love TC and I appreciate what Eggers was trying to do, i.e. take 1984 and make it digestible for a new audience of millennials who take selfies and are obsessed with numbers...
 but it's hard to love a book when it's protagonist is a naive, boring, cowardly, empty and mindless shell of a person who appears to just nod and agree to everything.

Mae Holland is a drone, and not the cool kind either. She is so frustrating you wish you could reach through the pages and choke the life out of her. Eggers spends way too much time in her head and it's a head that nobody wants to be in. Eggers should have given us insight into his more interesting characters: Annie, Kalden and Mercer. I just hope that when the movie comes out Emma Watson is able to do more with the Mae character and give her a few extra layers.

Overall, TC was a good read and it did make me briefly reassess my life, but it's also instantly forgettable and you won't remember any of the character's names a week after reading it.

Don't get me wrong, TC is an important book because of the crazy world we live in today, and I'm positive it'll make for a very interesting movie when James Ponsoldt finally finishes it, but it also felt very light. Eggers could have taken this incredible basis for a novel and dived way deeper with it. He could have taken it to depths so dark that it may have been successful in motivating me to start avoiding social media like the plague and actually caring more about my privacy settings.

Who should read this book?
Anyone who thinks they might be a bit too dependent on social media and technology.

- Chris Gander

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Book Review - A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

Book Review

Title: A Calculated Life

Author: Anne Charnock

Published: 2013

Rating: 60/100


There's a lot to love about A Calculated Life (ACL)... but there's also a lot to hate. As a big fan of sci-fi, I absolutely loved the futuristic dystopian world in which the book is set. I found the way in which the "simulants" had integrated into regular life to be a very interesting concept and when Charnock is elaborating on this, ACL really grabs you. As I was reading I began picturing a more picturesque version of the city in Blade Runner- one of my favourite books/movies of all time.

I loved reading the interactions between Jayna and human characters and enjoyed the internal conflict these interactions created within "her". My favourite chapter was the one in which Jayna visits with her boss's family and interacts with his wife and the kids. I found myself picturing the scene and smiling, as if I was 'The Constructor' watching my greatest accomplishment blend in so effortlessly with humans. This chapter had the perfect blend of dialogue and actions, without so much unnecessary explanation.

With that said, I wasn't a big fan of the novel's pacing. I found it to be quite draining to read in parts and, as a result, had to read it in small chunks (30 mins max). The novel took me over 3 weeks to finish and there were numerous times when I almost gave up. ACL is definitely not a sci-fi page turner and if you're looking for a novel that will leave you on the edge of your seat, this is certainly not it. I also found the book ended rather abruptly. In the final few chapters I was finally starting to really get into it and I found myself really wanting to know if Jayna's plan would succeed or fail. Then, without much warning, the book unexpectedly finishes with an absolute fizzer ending, leaving me feeling like I had just wasted my time.

However, with that said, I do think Charnock achieved her goal - which was to write a novel that explored the relationship between "bionics" and "organics" (humans), i.e. the struggle that would exist if both had to co-exist in society. In doing so, she made me (the reader and a human) actually care about the fate of Jayna's character (a bionic). Charnock succeeds here because, as a reader, there were moments when I actually forgot Jayna was a bionic and I found myself caring about her as if she was a human character. As a writer, I take my hat off to Charnock for pulling this off.

Who should read this book?
Anyone who loves real sci-fi movies like Blade Runner and Ex Machina.

- Chris Gander

Friday, 20 November 2015

Recipe: Hummus Mediterranean Summer Pizza (Clean Eating, Sugar Free)

Easy & Healthy Pizza Recipe

Hummus Mediterranean Summer Pizza

Suitable for those doing clean eating or sugar free diets!

Ingredients (SERVES 2 ADULTS)

  • 1 x Large Sugar Free Thin Pizza Base - Either buy one from the store (or the base with the least amount of sugar) or make this whole wheat pizza base.
  • 3 x Tbsp Hummus - Either buy some from the store or make this sugar free hummus from scratch.
  • 1 x Baby Cucumber - Wash & cut into thin slivers. If you can't find baby cucumber, just use half a regular sized Lebanese cucumber.
  • 1 x Cup of Spinach Leaves - Washed.
  • ½ x Avocado - Cut into thin slivers or just very small portions.
  • 8 x Cherry Tomatoes - Wash & cut into 4 quarters each.
  • ½ x Lemon - Cut into 2 pieces.
  • 1 x Small Block of Feta Cheese - Crumbled.
  • Salt & Pepper - To taste.
  • Chili Flakes - Optional.

Method (10 mins prep, 10 mins cook)

  1. Cover the pizza base in hummus and put it in the oven on 180° for around 8 minutes.
  2. While the pizza is baking, prepare all of the other ingredients and have them ready.
  3. Pull the pizza base out of the oven and sprinkle a pinch of chili flakes across it.
  4. Toppings - Cover the pizza base in a layer of spinach leaves. Then add the cherry tomatoes, cucumber and avocado. Crumble the feta over the top generously. Add salt and pepper to your taste.
  5. Serve - Serve the pizza with a quarter of lemon for each person to squeeze on themselves.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Recipe: Salt & Pepper Calamari + Mango Summer Salad (Clean Eating, Sugar Free)

Easy & Healthy Salad Recipe

Salt & Pepper Calamari + Mango Summer Salad

Suitable for those doing clean eating or sugar free diets!

Ingredients (SERVES 2 ADULTS)

  • Salt & Pepper Calamari (about 10-12 pieces) - Either buy a packet from the store already made or make your own. If making your own, follow this easy and healthy recipe.
  • 1 Large Mango - Cut into small pieces.
  • Mixed Salad Leaves (about 80g worth) - Swap this out for spinach or rocket if you so please.
  • 1 Lebanese Cucumber - Wash & cut into small pieces.
  • 1 Celery Stick - Wash & cut into small pieces.
  • 1 Small Birds-Eye Chili - Optional. Wash & dice up finely.
  • 1 Small Green Capsicum - Wash & cut into small pieces.
  • 8 Cherry Tomatoes - Wash & cut into 4 quarters each.
  • 1 Lemon - Cut into 4 large wedges.
  • Olive Oil - Optional. Ideally use lemon-infused olive oil.

Method (10 mins prep, 10 mins cook)

  1. Prepare all of the ingredients.
  2. Grab a large salad bowl and add the salad leaves, mango, cucumber, celery, chili, capsicum and cherry tomatoes. Don't mix it yet.
  3. Pan fry the calamari until it's a light golden brown colour on both sides (ideally use a stone pan that doesn't require oil or add a bit of olive oil to a regular pan before frying). Then turn the pan off and let the calamari cool for 2 minutes. Finally, tip the calamari into the salad bowl.
  4. Dressing - Drizzle a small amount of lemon-infused olive oil over the top of the salad. Top it off by squeezing 2 of the lemon wedges over the salad.
  5. Serve - Mix all of the ingredients together using salad spoons. Serve with 1 lemon wedge on the side. Enjoy!