Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr Mercedes by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King starts off with a horrendous crime. A man drives a large Mercedes into a group of people waiting to go into a jobs fair. It is an effective, if gruesome start to our story. There are two main POV characters. We spend time with Bill Hodges, a decorated police detective, now retired and slowly going to seed. We also get to know, perhaps a bit too well, the Mr. Mercedes from the title. He is a man with issues, a freudian delight. The two, protagonists, linked by the crime from the opening chapter, taunt, circle and torture each other throughout the book.

There isn’t any mystery as such. We know exactly who the killer is. The book is about the thrill of the game of cat and mouse that Bill and Mr. Mercedes play. It is difficult to tell who exactly is who is the hunter and who is the hunted – and this is the joy of the book. We are joined by a number of other characters. Bill is assisted by his neighbour Jerome, a precocious and talented teenager and Holly, a brilliant, if neurotic woman with a link to the original crime.

The plot moves along nicely, with the tension building to an explosive finale.

So why the three stars?

If I were to compare Mr. Mercedes to a restaurant, it would be Pizza Express. You know exactly what you will get as soon as you enter the door. The experience is predictable, but enjoyable and is good value. Faint praise perhaps – but this is not a challenging book. It is enjoyable, and I found it hard to put it down, but I doubt it will stay with me for any longer than a Pizza Express meal does.

What I liked:
– The setting: The book is set in an unnamed mid-western town at the tail end of the Great Recession. Jobs are scarce, and people work multiple jobs to make ends meet
– The pace: Things move fast in this book. The book covers events in a two week period, and a lot of stuff happens!
– The humour: Stephen King has always a been a funny writer. Even in this vanilla thriller, there are nuggets of comedy that made me laugh out load.

What I didn’t like:
– The characters: The bad guy is a cliche – a loner with mommy issues and technical skills. Each character has problems. Vivacious divorcee – check; precocious minority teenager – check; Neurotic middle aged woman with mental problems – triple check!
– The plot: Things happen (death, love, murder) very quickly and characters make decisions that do not make sense given what we know about them.

Mr. Mercedes is the first of the “Bill Hodges” trilogy, with “Finders Keepers” the second and a third in the pipeline.

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Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry PlanetThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” (TLW) in one sitting on a long flight. At the time, it felt like a particularly enjoyable story arc from Star Trek TNG or perhaps a binge session of Firefly. A week or so later, I keep thinking about the book, about the characters and about the patched up freighter and far flung moons with their plucky and weird colonists that inhabit TLW.

After the first chapter, I thought the book would centre around Rosemary and her journey from desperate runaway to some sort of ass kicking space warrior-scribe. I was wrong. The book is not just about Rosemary but about the entire crew of the Wayfarer and there is little in the way of ass-kicking. The pacifist captain, the rambunctious techs, mysterious navigator(s) and all the other colourful (literally in a few cases) characters that inhabit TLW have depth and agency.

The plot revolves around a long journey undertaken by the Wayfarer, a sort of space highway construction ship, to the Small Angry Planet of the title. Along the way, we visit markets, colonies, and planets while getting to know the crew and how the universe of the book works. The structure of the book may be conventional, yet it has a lot of say about gender, identity, violence and coming to term with one’s past. TLW is open about its politics: the captain of the Wayfarer is a pacifist, the doctor comes from a species that chose voluntary extinction after a decades of brutal warfare, and my favourite character has to consciously tone down her affection for her human crew mates because we are so weird about public displays of affection. Even the most curmudgeonly character has redeeming features.

TLW may not seem appealing if you like your science fiction to be of the military variety, or if you are a fan of hard science fiction from the likes of Alistair Reynolds. It certainly is different to the usual science fiction books I read, but I found it rewarding. Ms. Chambers clearly cares deeply about the Universe and the characters she has created. There is none of the nihilism and little of the violence that can be off putting about a lot of modern science fiction. TLW is character driven and while there are a few expository data dumps, things never get tedious.

I look forward to more books by Ms. Chambers and am glad that she is currently working on a companion piece that is set in the same Universe as TLW. A strong recommend from me.

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Books of 2015

My target this year was to read 50 books. I didn’t quite make it and finished with 23 books completed. I have a number of books still on “Currently Reading” shelf on GoodReads as well as a few paper backs lying around the flat. Still, I read some wonderful books this year, and a couple of disappointing ones as well.

Best Book read in 2015

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple
A history of the British invasion of Afghanistan in the mid 19th century. William Dalrymple consulted Afghan, Indian and British sources to write a haunting, powerful book that provides context to the contemporary British and American foreign policy in Afghanistan.

Science Fiction

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
An excellent English translation of the second book in the best selling “Three Body Problem” series by Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu. The Dark Forest has a compelling plot, and provides a unique take on the Fermi paradox.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Wonderful, poetic, post-apocalyptic fiction exploring love, loss and Shakespeare. My review here.

Non Fiction

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield
A charming and inspirational memoir by Canadian astronaut and Youtube sensation Col. Chris Hadfield.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande – A moving meditation on life and death.


The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
A beautifully written yet confused and bloated book by one of my favourite writers.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bullet and blood strewn set pieces do not help a weak plot in this dystopian novel written by the author of the excellent The Windup Girl. My review here.

Honorable Mentions

The Peripheral by William Gibson – Presents a look at a dystopian future enlivened by a clever plot and some precise writing.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie – Satisfying conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy.


Review: The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless FutureRise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rise of the Robots (RoR) was voted as the Financial Time’s Business Book of the Year* for 2015.

I found the book to be a disappointment. RoR goes over well trodden territory around automation, the shift of from a labour driven economy to a capital driven economy and the impending collapse of the consumption due to the shrinking middle class. Mr. Ford also provides a brief tour of the issues around the emergence of general purpose Artificial Intelligence** and nano technology. The book concludes with an argument for a universal, work appropriate basic income scheme and a discussion around the system of incentives that would make such a scheme work.

The book provides anecdotal commentary around the decimation of white collar jobs and the emergence of machine learning. It covers well trod territory on the failures of MOOCs and how a degree from a University may no longer guarantee a prosperous middle class life.

RoR comes across as a lament for the golden post-war age of increasing prosperity, high levels of employment and with the middle classes having a secure financial future. Mr. Ford mentions on a number of occasions that we are reverting to a feudal system with a small percentage of the population controlling access to capital and the majority of us becoming sharecroppers in a digital economy. I agree with this bleak prognosis but do not find Mr. Ford’s solution of a increasing consumption via a universal basic income satisfactory.

I found RoR to be a sharp, succinct read with extensive foot notes and references. There are few mentions in the book of the sort of challenges facing countries like India that are not wealthy and where a basic income would be difficult to implement. India, like China before it, has staked it’s economic future on creating millions of jobs through manufacturing and services. If these jobs are not to materialise due to the “Rise of the Robots”, what options remain open? Regrettably, Mr. Ford does not offer much in the way of insight here.

I would recommend RoR as a primer on the type of issues that developed nations will face in the coming decades but find Mr. Ford’s arguments for a solution unconvincing and his exploration on the deeper issues around ethics around general purpose AI unsatisfactory.

* FT Business Book of the Year:…

** Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence provides a detailed exploration around the issues behind the emergence of General Purpose AI:…

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Review: The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Water Knife is a lives up to its title: it’s a sharp, mean and violent story set in a grim near future US on the verge of civil war over water. The story unfolds in Phoenix, Arizona as the water runs out and the city is taken over by psychotic gang bangers, corrupt company men and desperate refugees from Texas (the “Merry Perrys”).

We follow three characters as they make their way through the dust choked ruins of Phoenix. Angel is a “Water Knife” for Las Vegas. His job is to make sure the taps do not run dry in his boss’s lush futuristic condos in the Vegas desert. We also meet Lucy, a journalist documenting the collapse of Phoenix (she even has her own #PhoenixDownTheTubes hash tag). Finally we spend some time with Maria, a Texan teenager living in one of many refugee camps policed by sociopathic gangsters (they keep Hyenas!). The three character arcs are connected by, of course, water. Or more specifically papers that will bestow senior rights to a serious amount of water in Arizona.

The Water Knife is kinetic, violent, and very grim. There are graphical descriptions of death, torture and mutilation. I am a big fan of Paolo Bacilagupi’s adult fiction and really enjoyed The Windup Girl. This book is in a similar dystopian vein, but left me disappointed. The writing is good, and the plot kept me going. However, I felt like I was reading a script of an apocalyptic science fiction film, perhaps a futuristic remake of Chinatown, as opposed to reading a book. Key plot points are telegraphed and the book lacked suspense or tension between the bullet and blood strewn set pieces.

I liked the book despite the criticisms above. Fans of The Windup Girl and the short stories in Pump Six will find much to enjoy here, but I can’t help but feel that there was much more to explore in this dystopian setting.

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Review: Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Slow BulletsSlow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review based on a copy received from NetGalley and Tachyon Publications

Alastair Reynold’s Slow Bullets is a novella exploring issues of identity, memory and revenge. There are echoes of Iain Bank’s The Use of Weapons as well as some of the ideas explored in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. The tone and setting of Slow Bullets is quite different to that of the gothic space opera (Revelation Space) or generation spanning science fiction (Poseidon’s Children).

The majority of the action is set on the prison transport Caprice as it recovers from a calamitous malfunction. The novella’s protagonist Scur and her fellow passengers awaken from hibernation to find the ship in orbit around a frozen planet and suffering from an acute case of bit rot.

Caprice’s passengers include war criminals from the two opposing religious factions. The war was over and a cease fire declared as the ship set off on it’s ill fated mission. As the ship’s systems fall apart, Scur and her fellow passengers have to deal with religious tensions, long simmering vendettas, as well as figuring out how to preserve millennia’s worth of cultural and scientific knowledge.

I quite enjoyed Slow Bullets. However, it feels more like a short story that was extended to a novella than a novel’s worth of ideas condensed to the shorter format.

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Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Station Eleven is a book that cannot be categorised easily. Is it science fiction? Is is literary fiction? Is it post-apocalyptic fiction? It is all of the above, and yet it does not conform to the tropes of genre fiction.

The apocalyptic event – a pandemic caused by a highly infectious and deadly strain of flu straddles the two main plot arcs in Station Eleven. Before the end of the world as we know it, we follow the life (in reverse) of Arthur Leander, a famous actor, now in his middle ages and playing Lear on stage. The second, post collapse arc, follows Kirsten Raymonde an actor with the Travelling Symphony as it moves between small settlements on the shores of Lake Michigan performing Shakespeare, playing classical music and avoiding trouble as best as they can.

Reviews on Goodreads, and on other similar sites are full of quotes from the book, and for good reason. Emily St. John Mandel’s prose has a simple, descriptive style that manages to convey both the beauty and the desolation of her post apocalyptic world. We find beauty and grace in burnt out houses, dark forbidding forests and abandoned rust streaked airplanes parked nose to tail at the airport, going nowhere. There is danger in the form of “The Prophet” and his followers as they stalk the Travelling Symphony. Yet, this book is not like The Stand or perhaps Justin Cronin’s The Passage. The minutiae of survival and self defence are ignored as the book focuses on the emotional impact of societal collapse on those that lived through it and those that were too young to remember the world as it was but are surrounded by the decaying scaffolding of civilisation.

The book is a meditation on art and, in a sense, of mortality. Arthur Leander, in some ways the central character of this book is not remembered for his films or his wealth. He lives on through small acts of generosity, giving the eponymous “Station Eleven” comic book to Kirsten when she was a child, or through photographs and articles in decaying gossip magazines.

So why 4 out of 5 stars? Despite the beautiful writing, I found myself skimming passages. Arthur Leander was a fabulously wealthy, successful actor and serial divorcee, but not a particularly interesting character. There are almost too many characters and side plots that don’t seem to add much to the story. I found myself impatient to go back to the Travelling Symphony and to Kirsten as they made their way around post-apocalyptic Michigan.

A strong recommend from me for fans of literary fiction who want to dip their toes into the burgeoning post-apocalyptic literature genre, and for fans of science fiction curious about the tropes of literary fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful and inspiring book.

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Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a man crush on Mark Watney. There, I said it. If you think this makes my review biased, move on sir, move on.

Still here? Good. Let me tell you about my mate Mark. He is the nerd’s nerd. Not content with just being a kick-ass engineer / astronaut, he can farm, he can drive, heck he can even sew.. on Mars! He possesses a testicular fortitude and self belief not often seen in these post modern, post apocalyptic morass that calls itself modern science fiction. What a dude!

I won’t lie to you, I was dubious about this book. After much prevarication, I finally booked a ticket to Mars on the enthusiastic recommendation of a normally rather taciturn colleague.

So what is The Martian all about? Its about an astronaut stuck on Mars after a NASA mission goes horribly wrong. We follow Mark Watney as he figures out how to survive on a desolate, inhabitable and bleak planet. Most of the book is written as a series of log entries and monologues from Mark as he rolls with the punches Mars throws at him and comes up with ingenious solutions to problems that would have stumped us mere mortals. He manages all of this while listening to disco – yes, disco. Mark has it rough.

There is a lot of science and a lot of engineering in this book. We get long passages on how to extract water from rocket fuel, how to grow potatoes in space and even how to build a crude sextant to navigate on a planet that does not have a magnetic field. The book could have been tremendously boring but the main character is likeable and the writing in places is wonderfully, crudely funny.

There are passages that are set on Earth and in space that provide a bit of context around the plot. Honestly, I skimmed through some of these chapters to get back to the action on Mars.

So yes, I am a fan of The Martian. Yet, it only gets 4 / 5 stars. Why? Well, you never get a real sense of danger for Mark. Yes, the situations are difficult and bad things happen. Yet, you just know that Mark will survive. This drains some of the suspense out of the book. But hey, its a minor quibble!

If you are a fan of science fiction, you will enjoy The Martian. If you are a space nerd and you Buzz Aldrin is your hero, you will love it. If you still happily watch re-runs of McGuyver, go and buy this book now!

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Review: Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon's Wake (Poseidon's Children, #3)Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poseidon’s Wake is the third volume in the Poseidon’s Children series by Alastair Reynolds. The events of this book are set a few centuries in the future from the second book – On The Steel Breeze. The main protagonists are still part of the Akinya clan. We find Mpozi, Goma and Ndege on Crucible and Kanu in the Solar System.

The book explores the results of the arrival of the Watchkeepers and the aftermath of the Mandala event at the conclusion of “Steel Breeze”.

Let me be honest – I found the book hard going, yet worthy of the four stars I have given it. There are long passages meditating on the meaning of life and the role of belief. Stay well clear if you are looking for action scenes or military science fiction. This is very much in the vein of Existence by David Brin. We have a McGuffin – vast alien artefacts on the planet Poseidon. The plot revolves around separate expeditions from the Solar System and from Crucible to the hitherto unvisited system following the receipt of a mysterious transmission.

Along the way, we find the machine civilisation explored in the first two books, we find super intelligent elephants as well as inscrutable aliens. Reading this reminded me of Rendezvous with Rama – it has the similar mix of hard science fiction as well the plot point of humans trying to figure out the motivations of an unknowable alien. It is a fitting conclusion to the series and a book that has stayed with me more than I expected it to.

SIDENOTE – There is one thing I never figured out about these books. Where are the White people? We have a future where all the conversation happens in Swahili, or Mandarin or Portugese – but no English. We have characters that are of different ethnicities, but no WASPS. Whats up with that?

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Review: The Docker Book by James Turnbull

It is hard to avoid Docker. Hacker News has been abuzz with it for years, The Register ran an exhaustive feature about it a couple of months ago; indeed it seems to have taken over the DevOps world.

But why do I care? I am a developer, I live in the land of abstractions. The JVM is as low as I go my friends.

The problem is, all developers need to do releases.. And releases have a tendency to go very wrong..


So, I decided to educate myself. What is it about Docker that has got the cool kids on Hacker News all excited?

I took a look at some Youtube videos, tried out the tutorials and read a handful of blog posts and how-tos on Docker. I just couldn’t get my head around it! Finally I took the plunge and spent the last couple of weeks working through James Turnbull’s The Docker Book.

So, am I enlightened? The short answer is – yes, I have enjoyed working my way through the “Docker Book” and I have a much better idea on how to use Docker and the sort of use cases it is designed for.

The book is written in a tutorial format. We start with the basics about Docker and containers and move on to installing Docker on your favoured Linux(1) distribution.

Once we have Docker up and running, we learn about the basics of Docker. How containers can be created from images and how these images can layered. We learn about the Docker repository can be used to download standard images (for example, the image for ubuntu:14.04 can be used to build a base container that runs Ubuntu 14.04 LTS) and how to build containers from the images that we define. The author walks us through setting up and managing some simple containers.

All the Dockerfiles and any scripts and code used in the examples is readily available from the Github repository that the author has setup for the book(2).

I suspect most readers will get the most value out of chapters 6 and 7 of the book. Here the author goes through some examples including:

  • Using Docker to build a test environment
  • Building a continous integration pipeline using Jenkins and Docker
  • Building a web application that is deployed on multiple containers

These examples are quite detailed and well designed. Most of them could be used as a basis for a Docker based application stack “in the real world”.

Chapter 8 explores the eco-system(3) that is being build up around Docker focusing on service discovery with Consul and orchestration with Fig.

The book concludes with chapters on the Docker API and how Docker can be extended.

“The Docker Book” does not go into details on how containers work beyond the introductory chapters. The focus of the book is about learning what you can do with Docker and it succeeds admirably. I deducted half a star from the review simply because the author does not delve much into things like performance implications of using Docker or on how exactly the operating system may allocate resources to applications running in containers. There are plenty of resources online on these topics4.

You can’t go wrong with “The Docker Book” if you are looking for a hand-on introduction to Docker. James Turnbull is a good tutor and the resources accompanying the book are great.

Will Docker solve my release woes? Is it actually ready to be deployed in a corporate setting? Perhaps a topic for another post..

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5


  1. Instructions for use of Docker on Windows and MacOSX are provided but are skeletal. Basically you need to use Boot2Docker
  2. I worked through almost every single example from the Kindle edition and didn’t find a buggy script or typo!
  3. The eco-system is moving fast. Kubernetes from Google is also worth checking out.
  4. The Docker blog is excellent